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CypherFest highlights Yukon’s growing dance scene

When Jack London published his novella The Call of the Wild in 1903, it’s doubtful he had any idea how far the story would reach.

When Jack London published his novella The Call of the Wild in 1903, it’s doubtful he had any idea how far the story would reach.

More than a century later, the tale of a dog surviving in the Yukon during the gold rush is being turned into an hour-long breakdancing and hip hop performance as part of this year’s CypherFest.

For six years, the Whitehorse festival has brought in dancers from around Canada and highlighted the growing popularity of urban dance styles in the Yukon, including hip hop, breaking, popping, krumping and waaking.

This year’s festival, from July 13 to 17, will feature outdoor dance battles along Whitehorse’s wharf, live graffiti art and two staged performances at the Yukon Arts Centre.

“What it does for us is help create excitement about the dance community and … rewards the students for their work because they get to perform, they get to battle in front of crowds,” said Breakdancing Yukon Society’s Ben Robinson.

“It’s just a fun way to keep the energy going.”

The London-inspired piece will be part of the festival’s main show on July 17 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

It’s the brainchild of Borealis Soul, more than a dozen Yukon dancers and musicians from various styles who formed their own company in 2014.

“We like to explore our northern identity because we’re all born and raised in Whitehorse,” said Robinson.

The group saw a lot of potential in London’s work for movement and live music, he said.

They’ve broken down the story into key scenes and set those moments to dance.

“It might just be a passage about him chasing a rabbit, you take that paragraph and you make a two- to three-minute piece based on that,” Robinson said.

“You just draw inspiration from the words and images in your head when you read it.”

Putting together a show like this for the stage presented a unique set of challenges. Dance styles like breaking are most often improvised.

Even though the piece is choreographed, Robinson said there is still an essence of spontaneity.

Often dancers will start coming up with ideas by recording themselves improvising to the music.

“That’s where the essence of it lives, in the creation,” Robinson said. “The creation itself is spontaneous and then from there you set it. So it still looks spontaneous because that’s where the movement originates from. But once we set it, it has to be that way for the show.”

Robinson estimated the group will have spent about 90 hours working on the dance and music before it makes it to the stage.

The show, which starts at 6 p.m. on July 17, will also feature extended pieces by Vancouver’s OURO Collective and Montreal’s Tentacle Tribe.

Earlier in the day, a 3 p.m. matinee will include excerpts from the main show but mostly feature around 35 local youth who take part in the society’s dance classes.

Along with the staged performances, free dance battles are happening on the wharf on July 15 and 16 from 4 to 8 p.m.

This is the first year the battles are happening outdoors. In the past they’ve been held at the Yukon Arts Centre, Robinson said.

During the battles, local artists will be painting graffiti on a large piece of plywood on wheels. That art will be displayed on the wharf for about two weeks, he said.

Robinson started trying out breakdancing in 2002 when he was about 11 years old. Since then, he has watched the dance scene in the Yukon grow.

Right now there are approximately 70 youth from kindergarteners to teenagers who take classes with the breakdancing society.

The performers with Borealis Soul are likely the “oldest generation” doing these types of dance in the Yukon, he said.

Last summer they spent two weeks travelling to 10 Yukon communities putting on shows.

“We got to the point where we wanted to actually produce some professional shows and hopefully tour it as a way of staying together,” he said.

“We grew up together doing stuff, we want to stay together, so how do you do that? Make a company and try and make some cool shows that other people want to see.”

Tickets for the matinee CypherFest show are $15 for adults and $10 for youth under 13.

Main show tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for youth.

A kickoff event, featuring excerpts from all the acts, is happening July 13 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Old Fire Hall.

Full festival passes are $36 for adults and $30 for youth.

Tickets and passes are available at the Yukon Arts Centre, Arts Underground and at

Contact Ashley Joannou at