"My dad told me that if I got through MIT, I could do anything,” James Tanabe ’00, ’01 remembers. After studying earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and physics at MIT (while also learning stunt coordination and professional dance on the side), Tanabe pursued his ultimate dream—joining the circus. “Having that MIT experience, I knew it was something I could go back to as I took a giant leap,” he says.
Tanabe studied hand balancing, acrobatics, and acting at the National Circus School in Montreal before landing his first performing contract at Expo 2005 in Nagoya, Japan. While performing, he saw an opportunity to launch his own circus production company in an untapped market. “I saw that circus wasn’t as mature in Asia and [wanted] a chance to develop the industry there,” Tanabe says. But as he waited for his big break, he soon found himself homeless.
“I wasn’t sure if I should persist in taking these risks, but my mother assured me that no matter what happened, she would always welcome me back home,” he says. “It was the message I needed to pull through.”
Tanabe secured his first circus production contract in Taiwan in 2006 and transitioned out of homelessness. The next year, he launched his production company, New Circus Asia, and retired from performing. “I wasn’t the best performer, but I had this skill to create opportunities for others,” he says.
Tanabe’s work soon caught the attention of circus industry giant Cirque du Soleil. Hired as assistant artistic director for Kooza, he then served as the artistic director for Wintuk and Corteo, and saw that even a large corporate circus faced tough decisions, like choosing between costly innovative productions and more financially sustainable shows.
Tanabe pursued an MBA at Wharton to learn to deal with show-biz challenges and then became a consultant for McKinsey—often working pro bono for up-and-coming arts organizations—before returning to Cirque du Soleil as a senior director. In 2017 he left to launch 51/49 Productions, a consultancy for the global circus industry, with his girlfriend, Lena Gutschank. “The biggest value I can create is to draw from my experience as an arts entrepreneur and working with companies like Soleil and McKinsey to support stakeholders focused on strengthening the live entertainment industry,” he says.
As Tanabe’s career evolves, he’s working only on projects he’s excited about—a lesson learned at MIT. “I remember the way my professors talked about their work—the way their excitement bubbled out. It’s something I try to do every day,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of MIT News magazine, published by Technology Review magazine.