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By age 24, Yusuke Funaki had his life mapped out. “My dream was to be a good scientist and good engineer,” he says. He studied for two years at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency—where he researched the robotic arms used in the International Space Station—then graduated in 2005 from the Tokyo Institute of Technology with a master’s in engineering. Funaki, who is from Okayama, Japan, was offered a job at Tokyo-based Bridgestone’s (5108) research and development department. Within a few years he had already applied for his first international patent to cover a non-pneumatic tire he had invented.
Then he went to a touring production of Quidam, one of many shows produced by the world-famous Cirque du Soleil. “At first I was impressed,” Funaki remembers. “But then I became moved, and I cried.” Funaki was especially affected by a solo rope-skipping performance by Norihisa Taguchi, and he decided almost immediately that this was something he wanted to learn. “Just as a hobby,” he says. “I didn’t have any ambition to perform. I just wanted to see if I could do it, if I could think like they think.”
He began slowly, first teaching himself rope-skipping tricks in a park, then practicing with a rope-skipping championship team at a local gymnasium. After five years of practice, he applied for a street performer’s license in 2008 and spent his weekends performing for Tokyo tourists and pedestrians. After several years of this, Funaki made a difficult decision: He would resign from Bridgestone in 2009. By April of the next year, he was training in Montreal at the international headquarters of Cirque du Soleil. In summer 2010 he was dispatched to Orlando to join the cast of La Nouba. He continues to live there and perform.
Now 32, Funaki often answers to the nickname, “NASA,” a constant reminder from his circus peers of his former life. Funaki says he’s sometimes nostalgic for his old job—”I have complex feelings,” he admits—but says making the transition from engineering to circus performing never felt like an especially huge career change. One skill set complimented the other.
“When I was in Japan, there was no skipping-rope street performer, except for me,” he says. “We invent or create something that didn’t exist before.” An engineer, like a rope-skipping acrobat, conjures a mental picture of what he wants to achieve, and then tries to recreate it in reality. “It’s the same mental process,” he says. “There’s really no difference.”