A big, burly man, Kijana Lewis is surprisingly light on his feet on stage. When he dances, you can almost see shock on the face of someone who is seeing him for the first time. It’s the incongruity of it. But that shock soon fades to awe and the audience hopes he never leaves the stage. That’s how good a dancer he is.
Kijana is also an actor. He can be seen in The Link (on this weekend at the National Cultural Centre) and has been in a number of other productions. But Kijana has not been too happy at being typecast. Because of his size, directors usually want him to play the strongman/bad man roles. He decided one day that he’d had enough.
“I promised myself not to do the role of an abusive husband [again]. I am always selected to be an abusive husband and I wanted to try new things but when I read the script for the first time I loved it,” he laughed. What script is this?
Last August, while Kijana was in Paramaribo, Suriname representing Guyana at the Caribbean Festival of Arts, the script for the play Before Her Parting was presented to him by the award winning Director Tivia Collins.
Kijana continued: “My skin shrivelled to think of the complexity, the fresh concepts and the storyline itself. I had to be a part. I messaged Tivia saying ‘Yes, I will do it!’” he said.
And so he did. At the end of the 2013 National Drama Festival in November, Kijana went home with the award for Best Actor for his performance in that very play. Maybe he will never say never again.
Before Her Parting turned out to be Kijana’s most challenging work to date. “You had to go deeper into the character. This was a position for which I had to do extra research. I just couldn’t go on stage and do this performance. I had to really get into the depths of the play to be in such a role. It really was a different experience for me,” he said.
Andy, the character Kijana played, physically abused his wife for years. The play opened with a heinous crime. He kills his wife (played by Tashandra Inniss) with his bare hands and buries her in the backyard.
However, Andy is tormented when his dead wife begins to visit him. There is uncertainty, confusion, emotional turmoil and a list of other feelings that would have made the role even harder for Kijana. But, as evidenced by the award he received, he was up to the challenge.
Before Her Parting by the Theatre Guild of Guyana group was the gem of the Short Plays category. It carted off six awards, along with Kijana’s there was Best Production, Best Use of Lights, Best Use of Sound, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Sonia Yarde).
Kijana said that for him drama is not far from dancing; at times they interlink. “There’s a saying that dancers make the best actors. They both are expressive, both need to be different characters and both need to have their hearts on stage; to be comfortable in front of an audience. It is easy for a dancer to venture into drama,” he said.
“Drama… It is difficult to put in words how I feel about drama. It is so much more than just an expression, it’s my life. I can’t see myself living without the two [Drama and Dance]. If I were to choose one it would be dance but drama is also part of my life and when I wake those are the things that I immediately think about.”
For him, drama started just about the same time he started dancing, around his mid-teenage years. He was always fascinated by acting. During his spare time, young Kijana would look at ‘Behind The Scenes’ productions of his favourite movies; he would keenly study documentaries on making movies to see how the actors would warm up and go through their paces. His imagination would have him creating scenarios where he would be the star, he would go through emotions and characters and found himself highly amused by it all.
However as soon as he completed his secondary education, he went ahead and joined the Theatre Guild. He recalled attending workshops facilitated by such veterans as Ron Robinson, Henry Rodney and Howard Lorimer. These men inspired Kijana to progress and invest his talents in the performing arts.
Today he counts seven awards won in total. Two from Merundoi, three from the Theatre Guild Drama Festival and two from the National Drama Festival.
Kijana thinks the National Drama Festival, though great, still has needs a lot of improvement. “We’re definitely trying but we still have a far way to go. I don’t think the people with the power to make it better have the interest of the arts at heart. They don’t respect it as much as the other sectors like sports and entertainment,” he said.
Kijana first stepped into his dancing shoes with no professional training or any long-term ambition to dance. He was just highly motivated by a spiritual connection. Using spiritual as a general term, he said the love for the beats of the African drums is something he cannot describe. Back then they called to him; they were the sweet sounds of his heritage calling.
One day his friend Mwafrica Haynes, director of the ‘Devine Starz’ dance crew from Buxton invited Kijana to be a dancer. He didn’t jump right in, but the interest was there. Kijana then joined, but only to dance to the rhythm of the African drums. He gradually began to perform in other dances with the group as it ventured to gigs along the East Coast Demerara and in the city.
The group then decided to enter the national dance competition, ‘Dance Mania’ but was not a huge hit as anticipated. Kijana, a year later set out to change the course of his life.
He entered the competition in the solo category and was named the Most Outstanding Dancer. Devine Starz won the group round and Kijana also captured the Duet round with a teammate.
It was during this competition that he was seen by Vivienne Daniels, Director of the National Dance Company. Recognising his remarkable potential, she advised Kijana to get professional training and he joined the National School of Dance, following his friend Mwafrica, who was already a student there.
Although his main interest was in African traditional dances, he was motivated to venture into modern dance, a style he also excels at today. It was after he stepped into modern dance that he realised that it was music in general that influenced him.
“Dancing is so many things. It’s like an escape from reality. Dance is a way of putting yourself in that moment and space you want to achieve; you want to be the best at. Dance is elevating yourself beyond physical control,” he said. Today his dances are versatile. He can do any move now from focusing on the choreography, backed by years of experience but he still loves his African rhythms.
Today he looks to venturing into the philosophy of dance, a process, he explained, that involves finding your soul and expressing yourself through dance.
He is a freelance dancer now working a bit with the ‘Let’s Dance’ Company for its upcoming production ‘May Blossoms’. Apart from that Kijana is working on other projects; he doesn’t see himself sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day.
With a degree in Public Management under his belt along with his wide ranging skills, Kijana believes he can one day have his own dance company. But he recognises that this is a huge responsibility. He said it would be a task that would take his full attention and at this time he has so many more experiences awaiting him still.