It’s been 17 years since Bennyroyce Royon left a local ballet studio to pursue his dance career. Now he’s returned as Artistic Director of Evergreen City Ballet, a nonprofit pre-professional ballet school in Renton. He was a consultant in the spring before taking over in July.
“I guess it’s natural for a little birdie like me, going out in the world, dancing and flapping my wings everywhere, to come back home,” Royon said. “My heart was pulled to see (Evergreen) succeed. If I have to redirect my career and put my attention to the place that shaped me into who I am today, then I am all for it.”
Now his first big challenge as director is underway as Evergreen puts on the Nutcracker for the holiday season.
More than putting on the famous ballet, Royon wants to create a cultural hub in Renton: an inclusive, diverse dancing space. He’s seen Renton grow so much since returning to Evergreen, and also said he’s received a lot of encouragement and support from Renton Municipal Arts Commission, the city and the Downtown Renton Partnership. Evergreen was recently part of the downtown tree lighting.
Royon said through Evergreen, he is ready to bring the world of dance to Renton and he’s optimistic about this pursuit. Bringing in dancers who don’t fit the mold is what helped him get to where he is today. As a 36-year-old Filipino-American queer person who faced barriers to ballet, he knows works needs to be done to change the accessibility and elitist perception the general public has of professional dance.
Royon moved from the Philippines to Washington state at age 12. He said it was a big culture shock, and he didn’t speak for the first year. When he started trying to get involved in activities, he found ice skating but wasn’t interested in other sports. Then Royon said he saw an advertisement in the Auburn Reporter looking for boys for Evergreen.
He went in for a Saturday class. He didn’t have the same gear or money for the same gear as other dancers, but the teachers saw something in him. They later told him they thought he had come from a different dance studio with his skills.
Although he’d never participated in ballet before, he grew up with Filipino folk dance in his schools. It wasn’t until later he realized he’d always had dancing deeply ingrained in his identity— he didn’t connect the folk dancing with western professional dancing. He said his performances and choreography are now inspired by what he learned in the Philippines.
After a few years at Evergreen and finishing high school, he ended up on a dance trip to New York City through a summer ballet intensive. He saw and became determined to attend The Juilliard School. He was accepted, and attended for four years. Like in his teenage years, money was tough, his mom was putting herself through school and his father was a truck driver while taking care of his three younger siblings. He said he couldn’t have done Evergreen or Juilliard if it weren’t for the assistance of scholarships.
Despite financial obstacles, his star continued to shine as he went on to perform with New York City Metropolitan Opera Ballet, tour with various dance companies and perform in the Broadway musical “The King and I.”
He then returned home after almost 20 years to help expand the vision of Evergreen, and the vision of the Nutcracker. He said many alumni are also returning to help with production.
“The past and the present are meeting because they believe in the future of this organization,” Royon said.
He said the nonprofit, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, has survived by being a cultivator for students to be the best they can and stay creative.
The ballet wouldn’t be where it was without the support from volunteer families and parents. Kathy Wallace is the volunteer coordinator for Evergreen, and was a volunteer for 11 years before. She said each production relies on at least 70 volunteers, and during Nutcracker season, each dancer is asked to have an adult volunteer to help. Volunteer duties range from managing props backstage to selling tickets up front.
Wallace said Evergreen is a “hometown studio,” and every volunteer treats the dancers like their own kids. During Nutcracker, Wallace will get to stand with her daughter during the party scene, and she’s excited to share the magic moment with her. She’s also been excited to see alumni continue to return to the school to help get the performance ready.
This year’s Nutcracker is titled: “Wade Walthall’s The Nutcracker.” Walthall is the original director and founder at Evergreen, and Royon was one of his students. Royon said he wanted the production to be known as Walthall’s, because he believes his choreography, setting and design of the ballet is one of the best renditions out there. The simple set, the elegant costumes, whimsical choreography have been staples of Evergreen’s rendition for the last 25 years, and it was time the community knew Walthall was at the heart of that.
You can see the care Walthall put into each student on the stage with his rendition, Royon said. A few of his favorite dances in Walthall’s rendition include The Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers.
Royon said he also restores Walthall’s vision by casting Evergreen dancers for Sugar Plum and Cavalier, instead of hiring professionals. He was chosen by Walthall to be Cavalier while he attended Evergreen.
“From the beginning of his training, (Royon) showed incredible promise. I am so proud of all his successes,” Walthall stated in an Evergreen social media post over the summer. “(Royon) is a great example of the worth of Evergreen City Ballet and a perfect representation as Artistic Director for ECB.”
The first weekend of “The Nutcracker” was performed Dec. 6 to Dec. 8 at Meydenbauer Center Theatre in Bellevue. The ballet also performed Dec. 13 to Dec. 15 at the Auburn Performing Arts Center and is set to run Dec. 2o to Dec. 22 at the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center.
All are welcome to the ballet school, Royon said. He sees dance as a natural right for all persons, to express themselves, and wants to promote inclusion in an authentic way more than a trendy topic. First and foremost, Evergreen is a ballet school providing high quality dance education to students of any level, Royon said. More information on the school is available at evergreencityballet.org.