By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu and Hafsah Abubakar Matazu
“I do a lot of solo work,” Kamuyu says
Wanjiru Kamuyu began her dance training in Kenya, and later studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, American Dance Festival and Philadanco. As a performer, she has toured internationally with world-renowned choreographers as her profile also rose. She has for the past three years performed as an original cast member in Julie Taymor’s smash hit Broadway musical, ‘The Lion King’ at Théâtre Mogador, Paris. As a teacher, she has participated in community engagement projects across the United States, and is currently in Nigeria taking students on a dance workshop facilitated by the United States Embassy. Daily Trust caught up with her for a chat, and herewith, are excerpts:
Daily Trust: At what point in your life did you encounter dance in a major way?
Wanjiru Kamuyu: I was born in Kenya; my father is Kenyan and my mother is American. In standard two, when I was eight, my mum put me in a ballet class. Right after that, I fell in love with dance, and I decided that’s what I want to do. My father was very worried, but my mum told him that I might be doing this for the rest of my life.
I fell in love with dance instantly. I think it was just being connected to the body and being able to express myself through movement. It felt at home, it felt easy, like a good fit.
DT: Dance being very physical, were you also into sports?
Kamuyu: I’m Kenyan (laughter). I ran and I swam. But I prefer swimming than running. So I swam a lot and even swam competitively and won a few medals. I gave up running after elementary school but until this day I still love swimming.
DT: You’re hosting a workshop here in Abuja, Nigeria. What do you hope to achieve, and what do you think of the talent levels of the participants?
Kamuyu: What I wish to achieve is just to share with them my world of dance and movement and hopefully give them an introduction or deepening into how they can care for their bodies, technically how they can grow into their bodies creatively. That’s what I’d want to leave with them. It’s only four days, but I would really want to do it for longer because with these four days, you’re just skimming.
DT: You were in the original cast of the Broadway hit ‘The Lion King’ in Paris for about three years. What was the experience like?
Kamuyu: Heaven! It was a dream come true. I did six auditions over three years before finally getting in. And in a country and a space that I really enjoy and a language that I really enjoy, too. It was nice to be part of the movement in Paris where they began to embrace the Broadway formula of how a show runs in a city. In Paris, shows don’t run for years on end. They run for two months and that’s it. So it was nice to be part of a new revolution of that movement.
The show itself is beautiful. The music is gorgeous, I was just so wonderful to be part of a grand production that is also grounded in my ‘African-ness’ and inspired by my country, Kenya.
Another thing I really enjoyed working on, is my current solo, ‘Portraits in Red.’ I’m going to perform it in Lagos on the 25th of this month, at the Ake Arts and Book Festival. It’s a work that’s evolved because I’ve lived on three continents. From the costumes, to everything else, I’m really proud of it.
DT: What challenges you the most, and what’s the creative process like?
Kamuyu: The challenge is getting money for what you want to do. But with the creative process, you’re inspired by an idea. So I do a lot of solo work because I’m not funded yet, so I go into the studio, I improvise for hours and once I structure the movements, I then start to infuse it with what the intention is. From that infusing of intention, will also water down and filter out certain movements because they will transform because of intention. I think the challenges in the creative process for me right now because of the need for more funding is that I work alone. I’m alone in the studio, I’m alone with my camera. And so you have eight hours of rehearsal, but you really have four because you have to keep going back and forth. When ideally, if I had someone that was a dramaturge, or a third eye that can be looking and helping me, the process can go faster and deeper. It breaks the energy flow so my prayer is to get more funding so I can get more structure that supports what I’m doing.
Also, when I’m doing solo work, I’d like to have another body to embody the solo so that when we’re at the production end of it, the lighting and all that, I can be on the outside and I can see. Because my husband is a lighting designer, we collaborate together, and I can see and we can collaborate better when I’m not running in between the stage checking what’s happening on the camera.
DT: Speaking of your husband, how did you meet?
Kamuyu: So I went to Paris in 2006 on a show on Josephine Baker, the famous African American woman who was trying to escape from segregation and all that. I choreographed, and was principal dancer, which was really a honour. It was at an opera venue in Paris, and my husband-to-be at the time was working the video aspect for the show. So the show ran for four years and we thought it would be for six months. And towards the end of my tenure with the company, Cyril made himself present. And then I got ‘The Lion King’ and said I was coming back to Paris, and he then he swooped in and courted me, but I resisted. He continued until I was like, ‘Why not?’ and now we’ve been happily together for 11 years, with 9 of them in marriage. Honestly, it’s one my best decisions. He really is a superstar and I really love him.
DT: With such a physical job, how do you unwind?
Kamuyu: On this [Nigerian] trip, I let off some steam by going to the pool. It was really nice. I’m a yoga instructor as well, so I incorporate yoga techniques to relax as well. So swimming, yoga, or a nice tall glass of wine; it just depends on the day and the level of stress.