Michigan Engineering News

A person doing a one-handed handstand with their legs in a split.

An academic acrobat

Meet the alumnus who joined Cirque du Soleil.

A person doing a one-handed handstand with their legs in a split.
Photo: Courtesy Chris Gatti

Plenty of kids dream about running away and joining the circus. But Michigan Engineer Chris Gatti (BSE ME ’05, MSE BME ’07) has made it happen. The 35-year-old performer, who describes himself as “an academic by training but an acrobat at heart,” joined Cirque du Soleil in 2014, swinging and leaping his way across South America in a travelling show called Corteo.

While a move from engineering to acrobatics might seem like a stretch, gymnastics has always been Chris’ first love. He first went to the gym at age four and has never looked back.

“Gymnastics was a safe place for me. It was where I always wanted to be and where I belonged,” he said. “It was what I thought about all day in school and I didn’t want to be anywhere else on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Chris competed with the U-M gymnastics team during his time as an undergrad, but left competitive gymnastics after graduation to focus on engineering. He trained in his spare time during a stint as a researcher in the U-M Orthopaedic Research Laboratories. He coached youth gymnastics and also found time to earn a PhD in industrial and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

But the itch to perform never left him, and in 2014 he sent a demo video to Cirque du Soleil. It didn’t take long for his phone to ring (to watch Chris’ demo tape, scan this page with the Decoder in the One Cool Thing app–see p. 9 for details). Two weeks after defending his PhD thesis, Chris was in Montreal training for Corteo. He toured with the show for 16 months.

A black and white picture of a man looking to the side.
Photo: Dalen Vigil

Chris is still with Cirque du Soleil, working as a head coach and trainer. Right now, he’s gearing up for Volta, a new show that will open in Montreal this May before touring North America.

Being a circus coach demands a grueling schedule—most days he’s on the job from 9:00 A.M. until 10:00 P.M., not to mention the time he spends training in the gym. But even with his hectic work schedule, Chris makes time for mental gymnastics as well. Computer science is a major focus for him at the moment.

“For me, programming is like a sandbox where I can just play and learn and pick things up,” he said. “It’s what I do as a break on weekends, I like to sit down and program and see what I can come up with. It’s not necessarily work, it’s just fun.”

At the moment, he’s working on an algorithm-based tool to schedule circus artists into acrobatic sequences based on their availability, capabilities and medical limitations. Chris sees acrobatics and academics as two sides of the same coin.

“I see research as playful because you can be very creative,” he said. “You have these problems thrown at you and there isn’t just one way to solve them, you can go off in one direction and that’s fine as long as you get a solution. So that creativity is a little like playing in the gym.”