Founded in 1994, Evergreen City Ballet (ECB) has evolved from its humble beginnings in Auburn, WA into a leading not-for-profit arts organization and pre-professional ballet school, now boasting a custom-designed 7,600 square foot facility in Renton and a dedicated student body. But several transitions over the past few years have left the community wanting all that much more, so when ECB announced Bennyroyce Royon had been appointed Artistic Director this July, it was clear that the school would be heading into its 25th year with gusto.
Royon, who has toured across the US, Canada, and Europe, has performed with dance companies and choreographers from Armitage Gone! Dance, Sidra Bell Dance New York, and Bad Boys of Dance, to Aszure Barton, Karole Armitage, and Darrell Grand Moultrie. He has performed on Broadway (The King and I, original cast) as well as with The Metropolitan Opera Ballet (Madame Butterfly, Turandot, The First Emperor) and the New York Philharmonic (The Cunning Little Vixen), creating original works for Atlanta Ballet, The Joffrey Academy of Dance, and Ballet Hispánico among others. His own company Bennyroyce Dance was established in 2010 and will continue its work through Royon’s transition to a bi-coastal career.
It was Evergreen City Ballet, however, that jumpstarted Royon’s love for dance to begin with. Having grown up in the Seattle area, he attended the school under Founding Artistic Director Wade Walthall (1994-2008) and received exemplary enough training to find himself at The Juilliard School upon graduation. So when Royon talks about his role as the new Artistic Director, he does so with a sort of effervescent fervor: “It’s just really surreal to me” he reflects, “that I was once a full scholarship student here and now I’m sitting in this chair… It matters that a Filipino American, gay/queer person is sitting here who is not of a cookie cutter mold…” It matters, further, that Royon’s non-traditional arrival on the ballet and performance scene has made him acutely aware of the need for inclusion, opportunity, and educational rigor – making him uniquely qualified to take ECB to the next level as Artistic Director and informing his objectives for the school’s growth.
Royon’s short-term goals include developing a robust schedule to ensure that students have a strong technical foundation – a technical foundation which he received at ECB and credits in part, with his admission to Juilliard and subsequent successes in the professional choreographic and performance fields. Expanding the curriculum and even diversifying class offerings to extend beyond foundational ballet classes is one place he’ll start. “We are keen on supporting different types of dancers,” Royon emphasizes. “We aim to really shape a curriculum and approach that is rigorous, well rounded, and holistic… I want the school to be a nationally recognized pre-professional ballet school with a studio company in five years time,” he says. It’s an ambitious goal, but Royon – like most artists – isn’t one to settle.
In fact, the ultimate goal is to cultivate Evergreen City Ballet beyond pre-professional dance training and to become a cultural hub for the arts, learning, and community-oriented inclusivity –– all in symbiosis with the prioritization of access, affordability, and diversity. This will mean opening doors to cultural dance groups, offering possible subsidies, creating community partnerships, and reaching out to individual community members to meet their needs as well. Since his arrival in July, one initiative has already been implemented: $5 community classes which allow working artists the opportunity to take class when they otherwise may struggle to for the financial burden of doing so. The program is already a success, with two open classes weekly and all proceeds benefiting the teaching artist.
Student mentorship, a flourishing scholarship program, and the cultivation of a richer student culture are all also part of Royon’s immediate plans to clearly define the studio philosophy and foster ECB as a place where dancers can learn, grow, and thrive – not just as artists and technicians, but as global citizens whether they choose to pursue dance professionally or not. Royon is adamant that the mentorship and support of the ECB faculty, parents, and staff during his years as a student shaped his experience and ultimate pursuit of dance into adulthood, but notes that without his scholarship none of it ever could have happened. “If I wasn’t awarded that scholarship [to Evergreen City Ballet], I wouldn’t have gone to Juilliard, I wouldn’t have danced at the Met, lived in New York, toured Europe, the US, Broadway… all of those things would not have been possible.” For Royon, boosting the scholarship program in addition to initiating formal student mentorship are deeply personal goals, and ones that enliven him with passion and excitement.
It’s for that reason that the Evergreen City Ballet Legacy Gala on October 26 will not only be a celebratory culmination of the last 25 years and formal transition into Royon’s Artistic Directorship, but also a vital opportunity to connect with alumni and jumpstart the realization of the school’s plans for the future. Royon, the Board, volunteer families, and Parent Guild have worked together to organize the event, ambitiously seeking to raise $25,000 to close out the 25th year. Proceeds will benefit merit scholarships, productions costs including the restaging of Wade Walthall’s ballets, guest choreographers, new repertory, and facilities updates, allowing for the students themselves to benefit directly from the Gala.
“The parents are thrilled. There’s excitement, there’s energy, there’s a clear vision…we’re delivering what we’re saying as a school,” Royon remarks. But the parents aren’t alone in their enthusiasm; the students and alumni, who have clearly cultivated a home within the walls of ECB’s studios, emit the same eager anticipation for this transition of leadership. Students stop by Royon’s office for a morning hug or hello, clearly excited to see him and revel in his positive energy. “It’s probably a really dramatic change,” notes ECB student Serena Martin, 17. “But I think that’s really good for all of us because… we’ve been here through all the changes and this one I have a really good feeling about…” It’s hard not to.
More information on Evergreen City Ballet, $5 community classes, and the upcoming Legacy Gala can be found here or on the school’s Facebook and Instagram. For updates on Bennyroyce Royon’s company, Bennyroyce Dance, visit bennyroyce.com.