NEW YORK—Mr. Yangmuye “Ben” Chen became aware of the richness of the traditional culture of China only after he left China at the age of 9.
Years later, he began to learn how to share the culture and history of China with the world when he studied at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and went on stage to perform in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts.
Mr. Chen moved from Beijing to the United Kingdom as a boy and attended school in London. There, his eyes were opened to things he never knew. Unlike before, his classmates in London were mostly non-Chinese and from all over the world.
“British society emphasizes multiculturalism and respecting other people’s cultures,” he said. “Every culture is supposed to be respected. It was only after coming to the United Kingdom that I realized that I also had a culture to be proud of.”
In 2008, Mr. Chen traveled to Fei Tian Academy of the Arts—which he calls “a school like no other in the world”—for an audition. When academy staff saw his 6-foot frame and flexibility, it was an easy decision to accept him. Mr. Chen’s substantial background in music composition and theory from his studies in the United Kingdom, and his grasp of the timing and rhythm in music, have proved to be an asset in his dance, since classical Chinese dancers work seamlessly with the orchestra in the flow of the performances on stage.
As Mr. Chen says, “In classical Chinese dance, the requirement is that any dancer be able to portray any character, whether young or old, good or evil.”
Mr. Chen has often played what he calls “noble man roles:” a scholar, an abbot, a courtier. One of his first highlight individual performances was in the 2010 Shen Yun season pieces, “Splitting the Mountain.” The Chinese legend begins with a forbidden love affair between a scholarly human man and a goddess, which infuriated the goddess’s brother, the three-eyed deity Erlang Shen, who imprisons the goddess in a cave. Mr. Chen played the mortal man—who is the father of the eventual hero of the dance—in this piece.
In the 2011 dance “The Heroic Lu Zhishen,” Mr. Chen portrayed the elderly abbot who expels from the temple the drunken monk Lu Zhishen. In another role as a wise and seasoned man, Mr. Chen was Xiao He, the tutor for the famous general and title character in “The Great Han Xin.”
One of Mr. Chen’s standout characteristics as a dancer is his excellent coordination. He’s noted for attaining a high level of control of his arms and legs, and of knowing how to use force in the correct direction. This includes mastery of spinning movements.
Mr. Chen’s personal favorite dance is the piece “Tang Court Drummers,” in which a corps of male drummers dance and drum with zest and agility, while sending deep reverberations through the audience. He said, “It’s a masculine dance, very powerful. The inner spirit of the dancers comes out and moves the audience from the inside.”
He felt privileged to be able to perform in practicum the “Tang Court Drummers” during the “Best of Shen Yun” performances at Lincoln Center in New York in 2012.
Impact of His Art
Reflecting on his boyhood transition from China to the West, Mr. Chen said, “In China, school forces one to learn about the ‘glory’ of communism in China, instead of learning about the 5,000 years of traditional virtuous history and culture.”
Mr. Chen articulates his thoughts on the overall impact of his art as a dancer. “I really feel that the mission of reviving Chinese culture is our destiny, especially as Chinese who grew up in the West. After I realized how important culture is to ourselves as Chinese people, and also the joy that traditional Chinese culture can bring to people across ethnicities, I feel that it is our duty to share the true essence of Chinese culture with the world, and eventually one day to bring it back to China through our performing arts.”
Due to restrictions of the current communist regime in China, Shen Yun cannot perform in Mr. Chen’s first home just yet. Shen Yun positively portrays traditional Chinese culture, including Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, and the traditional meditation practice Falun Gong—all of which the communist regime has worked for decades to destroy.
However, Mr. Chen mentioned how pleased he is that he anticipates performing in his second home, London, for the first time since arriving at Fei Tian Academy in 2008, when the company he dances with in practicum is scheduled to tour Europe in the near future.