Majestic, swelling melodies cascade through the theater as the curtains slowly rise to reveal a celestial realm almost too magnificent for mortal eyes to behold. Sublime and compassionate Buddhas perform grand mudras—the language of the divine. Around them, exquisite heavenly maidens float across the stage in flowing, ethereal dresses. A collective “Wow!” stirs in the audience as they are transported into the heavens. Tears brim in people’s eyes as they feel a distant yet familiar yearning deep in their hearts.
Although Shen Yun Performing Arts changes its program every year, it always opens its performance with a variation of this scene. For principal dancer Kenji Kobayashi, this opening number still gives him goosebumps year after year.
On his annual tours with Shen Yun, Kenji revels in the euphoria he feels as he shares the magnificent art of classical Chinese dance with audiences around the world. When he steps on stage, he becomes totally immersed in his character, forgetting all else.
Kenji speaks much like how he dances—he pours in all his heart and spirit. With his infectious smile, he is like a wellspring of positive energy that flows forth to uplift everyone around him.
REACHING HIS DREAM – SHEN YUN
Kenji grew up in Japan with a Japanese father and a Chinese mother. When he first saw the New York-based Shen Yun perform in Tokyo in 2006, he became an instant fan. Engrossed by the dignity of the male dancers, the grace of the female dancers, and the vibrant backdrop, Kenji walked away feeling deeply inspired. There was something transcendent and soul-stirring about Shen Yun, something that surpassed other forms of entertainment.
From then on, Kenji went to see Shen Yun every year. He set his sights on gaining acceptance to Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, a leading school of classical Chinese dance in New York that trains many of Shen Yun’s artists.
He auditioned three times before he was accepted. Kenji was determined to succeed at Fei Tian, and he told himself, “I can endure any hardship. I will endure.”
He laughs as he says that Fei Tian turned out to be even harder than he had imagined, but as his love for dance grew ever stronger, he found the strength to persevere.
At Fei Tian, Kenji had his first taste of performing during an internal competition. It was a qualifying round to determine which students would be selected to compete in New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television’s International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. As he danced on stage, Kenji says,
“I just felt extremely happy, extremely happy. When you enter into the character, you truly … how should I say it, you enter into your own world.” Kenji was only a fledgling dancer at the time, but he had his first taste of bliss.
A SON’S DUTY
At Fei Tian, part of Kenji’s training involved the study of Chinese history, a vibrant tapestry of stories, values, and traditions spanning five millennia of Chinese civilization. Kenji delighted in the stories of ancient China, with their colorful tales of loyalty, righteousness, and battles between good and evil—so riveting that they panned out like dramatic plays for him. “The more I read, the more interesting I found them,” he says.
Through the medium of classical Chinese dance, Kenji and his fellow dancers brought these stories to life and showcased traditional virtues like selflessness, benevolence, and integrity.
The paragons of Chinese history also became windows of reflection for Kenji. “Their stories and the way they conducted themselves can inspire us,” he says, and prompt the question: “What kind of person do you ultimately want to be?”
In 2016, Kenji choreographed a dance on his own for NTD’s 7th International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. The story centered around a young warrior who strives to follow two traditional Chinese virtues: filial piety and loyalty.
The story begins with the young man’s father teaching him about martial arts and the importance of serving his country in its time of need. Later, his father dies on the battlefield, thrusting the young man into immense grief. But remembering his father’s words, he ultimately chooses to continue his father’s legacy by serving their country.
The story is dear to Kenji’s heart, as he too lost his father when he was only 17. When Kenji speaks of his father, his words brim with admiration. His father was a man who was reliable, who bore responsibility, and who selflessly gave to others. At meals, he’d eat other people’s leftovers, and at restaurants, he’d always let others pick the menu.
“He never thought about himself. He always thought about others first,” Kenji says. For Kenji, his father was an infallible figure. “No matter what happened, he would be in front of us, protecting us,” he says.
Kenji was at school when he received the phone call from his mom that jolted his world out of balance. At this kind of moment, Kenji says, it comes down to a choice. For him, this was a period of sudden maturation, as he learned to face the world alone: “I couldn’t be a naive youth anymore. I had to start assuming a lot more responsibilities.” And for the young man in the story, he chose to carry on his father’s legacy and life aspirations.
To bring the character to life, Kenji endlessly polished his interpretation of the character, adding layers of nuance and feeling to every breath, every gesture, and every movement to show the young man’s gradual transition from despair to determination. And thus, just as a melody becomes a symphony, Kenji built a multidimensional character whose palpable emotions swept audiences away.
“Entering into a character on stage is just pure pleasure. When you reach a certain level, when you have matured emotionally and rehearsed technically to a certain point, you don’t feel nervous; it’s just pleasure,” Kenji says.
At the end of the scene, Kenji’s eyes are resolute as he throws his father’s cape onto his shoulders, wipes away his tears, and picks up a long spear in preparation for battle. Kenji’s moving performance, a shining tribute to his own father, was awarded gold.
For more information see below:
Shen Yun 2020 Official Trailer
Shen Yun Official Website
Shen Yun Twitter Account
Shen Yun YouTube Account
Shen Yun Facebook Account
This article was originally published in Elite