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Two-degree alum continues education--in circus arts


Running away to join the circus isn't as simple as it used to be.

Just ask James Tanabe (S.B. 2000 in EAPS and S.B. 2001 in physics), who went through an extensive audition process to gain admittance to the national circus school in Montreal and left MIT in August to begin training in acrobatics. Once he completes his schooling there, his degrees will read: earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; physics; circus arts.

"I wasn't expecting to get in. I definitely wasn't budgeting my life around it," said Tanabe. "It was a multitiered process. With each step I kept thinking, 'This is the one where I get cut.'"

But he didn't get cut. Instead he was chosen for one of the six slots allotted to non-Canadians in a class of 16 carefully selected individuals at the ������cole Nationale de Cirque. Tanabe describes the school's three-year curriculum as a combination of two paradigms, that of the artistic conservatories like Julliard plus a disciplined athletic training program.

Founded by a founding member of the Cirque du Soleil and a gymnast, the 20-year-old school holds classes in academic subjects, as well as in the more traditional circus arts. It is one of the few circus schools in the world and the only one in North America, according to the school's web site, which noted that "students acquire a solid general education while developing their mind and body, talent and creativity."

Tanabe declared trampoline as his discipline for the first year because it will help him develop his "air sense. Hoop diving, flying trapeze, all these skills can be developed on the trampoline," he said. His first year courses will include circus history, French, trampoline, tightrope, juggling, acrobatics, strength training and aerial classes. Tuition, which is subsidized by the Canadian government, is about US $3,000.

His parents, Andrew (S.B. 1968 in management) and Katharine, are supportive of his new career direction but were "a little bit surprised," he said. "It was a little bit of whiplash for them. They knew I was auditioning, but I didn't build it up. I'm not one to act on a whim, so they know I'm really serious about it.

"My personal challenge as an acrobat is to say something meaningful about life and what it means to be alive," said Tanabe, who began performing at age six in a theater in his hometown of Rochester, Minn. "I want to try to move audiences in ways that aren't available in conventional theater. American theater has become almost cerebral. It's like literature that's being read out loud. I want to open it up to include near-impossible acrobatics that force the audience to respond almost viscerally. [This type of performance] gives me the opportunity to interact with people on the level that makes us human. It's totally honest."

Tanabe said he began thinking this way his senior year of high school when the man directing him in Moli�re's "The Miser" showed a tape of the Cirque du Soleil "to show us how much the body communicates." That same year, he watched the 1996 Olympics and decided to be a gymnast. He joined the MIT gymnastic team as a freshman and was co-captain his last two years.

The 5-foot-3-inch performer ("I'm tiny for the real world but average for acrobatics") was working as a UROP student for Senior Research Scientist Alan Lazarus in the Center for Space Research over the summer, doing solar wind research with the plasma science group, before leaving for Montreal in mid-August. While he apparently handled acting, gymnastics and the rigor of a science education at MIT just fine, he voiced a tiny bit of apprehension about his next step.

"I'm more scared going to this school than I was going to MIT. There's much more chance involved," said Tanabe.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 26, 2001.

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