Special to the SGN
In 2001, while sitting in my office as the community facilitator for the Young Asian Men's Study (YAMS) in the International District of Seattle, I met a 17-year-old who pranced around the hallway on his toes and dreamed that someday he would be a ballet dancer. His name is Bennyroyce Royon.
Benny, as he fondly preferred, actively participated in peer discussions I facilitated on self-esteem for Asian/Pacific Islander Queer youth. We also talked about relationships, family, and community. He was as assertive and adventurous as most young people his age, and did not shy away from speaking his mind about what he felt and what he strongly believed in. He was clearly a strong force to many of his peers and mentors.
Benny began his professional dance training at Evergreen City Ballet Academy in Auburn, Washington, and in 2006 earned his B.F.A. in dance at the esteemed Juilliard School in New York City, where he now resides.
From prancing around my office 12 years ago, Benny has grown to be a successful and sought-after dancer, choreographer, and teacher. He founded Bennyroyce Dance Productions (BDP) to facilitate his artistic and creative endeavors, support his desire to collaborate with other contemporary artists, and sustain his desire to serve the public through live dance performances. He has since received choreographic commissions from Bad Boys of Dance, Atlanta Ballet, Evolve Dance, Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Joffrey Academy of Dance (the official school of Joffrey Ballet), and the Chop Shop: Bodies of Work dance festival in Bellevue, where he will appear this weekend. His work has been described by Creative Loafing Atlanta as 'unexpected and heart-stoppingly dramatic' and Arts Critic Atlanta as 'refreshingly original.'
His artistic statement asserts:
There is a collective energy that resides within us all. It is energy that divides and multiplies, cycles and recycles. Energy that ebbs and flows through the motion of time. I am compelled to capture this motion by fusing different styles of movement language as a medium to discover both abstract and narrative stories that reveal the mystery, beauty, and driving force of the human condition. I use my art form as a lens to examine current social and cultural ideas. I desire that my work educates, challenges, engages, and inspires audiences. The expression of movement is an expression of the energy that belongs to all of us and unites us. I invite you to join me in an ongoing dialogue about our experience of life in motion.
This month, Benny returns to the Northwest with a string of shows, premiere productions, and master classes. He is eager to share his gift.
I caught up with Benny just prior to his coast-to-coast voyage from New York to Seattle. It felt surreal to hear his voice - the dancing teenager now an accomplished dancer.
Aleksa Manila: What does it mean for you to return to your home state as an accomplished artist?
Bennyroyce Royon:My return for these engagements means a great deal to me. I will get to share with people who have supported me from the beginning what I have achieved through being away for such a long time.
MANILA:What inspired you to be involved with these performances?
ROYON:Besides my personal quest to return home and show my family and friends how I have matured as a person and as an artist, I am inspired by the significant potential to reach out to a range of new audiences. Being a professional dance artist for almost 11 years, I have learned to grasp the invaluable meaning of human connection. Subject matter aside, as an artist my main motivation is to reach out to anyone who is sitting in the audience and tug at their hearts, minds, and souls. I've always had the desire to give the public an unforgettable experience that sparks curiosity, encourages imagination, and stimulates all their senses. I feel really fortunate to have two opportunities to share my work and connect with people from my home state. Geographically speaking, these are two very different environments. One is in the charming mountain community of Morton and the other is centrally located in the vibrant city of Bellevue. But both share the central mission of enriching people's lives through the arts. And really, in return, these performances will further cultivate who I am as an artist.
MANILA:How will your current shows compare to your illustrious list of shows around the world?
ROYON:That's a really good question! Well, so far I've traveled and performed all over Europe, Canada, and the U.S. I really want to perform in South America or Asia someday. Anyway, back to the question: Most of the performances I have been part of have been in major theaters and venues. I can honestly say that even though I enjoy performing for the general public of the shows I have been part of in the past, nothing beats the gratifying feeling of performing for my family and friends. Most of my immediate and extended families live on the West Coast. It's rare that my parents, siblings, nephews, and great-grandmother (who is 96, by the way) get to see me dance. So this time around, I'm bringing home to them the show. It actually makes me more nervous now that I think of it. I guess it's because I really want to do well and make them proud.
MANILA:Who is your ideal audience?
ROYON:Is this a trick question? [laughs] People with open hearts and minds.
MANILA:What will the audience take away from these shows?
ROYON:I just really hope to make a genuine connection with the audience. That to me is the reward of what I do. I hope to pull at their heartstrings and engage in dialogue through their experience of live dance performance. If they leave with a tear, a smile, a question, or even a remark of some sort, then I feel I have done my job. Now for the avid dance viewers, I hope to offer them a refreshing experience of contemporary dance.
MANILA:What makes these shows uniquely BDP?
ROYON:I'm still developing my artistic voice, so I don't quite now how to answer this. But I can tell you that I am often told that I have a very distinctive way of moving and putting together movement when I choreograph.
MANILA:Why do you dance?
ROYON:Because I've got this itch I can't seem to shake off. I'm always moving. I can never stand still! This question actually reminds of when my grandpa Warren was still alive, during the time when I started my intensive dance training with Evergreen City Ballet in Auburn. Every time my parents would take my siblings and I to visit our grandparents, he would jokingly ask, 'You still dancin' in your undies?' I would just blush and say nothing out of embarrassment. He was just being playful. My family saw that dancing soon became a passion of mine. I really didn't know how to articulate this passion until I went to the Juilliard School. As I matured, I learned that I dance because I have so much in me that I have to express. I remember when I was a young boy, I had a hard time expressing myself. I was always very sensitive and I remember having a lot of emotions that I didn't know how to deal with for whatever reason. Now, I burst out in a turn, a jump, a roll on the floor, or a gesture. It's quite fun!
MANILA:What has your experience been as an out Gay man in the ballet world?
ROYON:Well, first of all, I wouldn't consider myself as belonging in the ballet world. I more belong to the modern and contemporary dance sphere. In any case, my experience as an out Gay man was more difficult in my high school years than in my current adult life. We fortunately live in a more tolerant society compared to the time when the legendary male ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev lived. Back in high school, I immersed myself in schoolwork, being part of show choir, and going to dance classes after school. So the homophobic comments and interactions with the 'jocks' in my school were maintainable. I do remember dancing for the whole school during my senior year and being laughed at by some of the students out in the audience. The emcee announced my acceptance to the Juilliard School. Then, I came out to the stage wearing tights and danced a balletic solo. They were silver tights, to be precise! Murmurs and a bit of laughter ensued but I kept dancing - all the way to New York City and around the world.
MANILA:How have you personally inspired others who aspire to be accomplished artists?
ROYON:I truly feel like other people inspire me more than I inspire them. And if I were asked to give encouragement to others who aspire to be accomplished artists, I would say that the struggle is part of the success. I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't work hard and bore through the obstacles in my way. That said, all I can do to inspire others is to lead by example and keep winning in life without being defeated.
MANILA:Lastly, who is your hero?
ROYON:Is it cheesy to say that my mama is my main hero? The rest are my family and friends who have supported me throughout the years to live out my dreams. One of those friends is actually interviewing me right now and I get my 'divaness' from her! [laughs]
WHERE TO SEE HIM
Enjoy the artistry of Bennyroyce Productions at the sixth annual Chop Shop: Bodies of Work contemporary dance festival, February 16 and 17, at the Theatre at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue (11100 N.E. 6th St.). For more information, visit www.chopshopdance.org. Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/283730. For a complete list of Royon's performances and classes, visit www.bennyroyce.com.
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