Riley Simpson-Fowler addresses an enthusiastic crowd at Shipyard’s Park during a showcase event in 2016

Riley Simpson-Fowler, digital outreach regional manager at the Heart of Riverdale Community Centre, has been participating in Cypherfest since it started a decade ago. It’s been up and down in terms of funding. Originally, the events were huge, he remembers, when the Heart of Riverdale had the funding to fly up lots of dancers, artists and teachers. He hopes to see the festival emerge from the COVID times and return to its former glory.

“For the first couple of years, we were doing big things and flying people up from all over,” he says, taking a quick break from work to chat at a picnic table outside the centre. “Then our funding went down and we put energy into other things. So, it’s been more of just a local thing. My thing right now is that I want to build it back up to where it was those first couple of years, when it was just bumping.”

According to Simpson-Fowler, organizing Cypherfest this year, with the uncertainties that come with the pandemic, has been absolute chaos. He said he feels like every day there is something new for his team to consider. With the current outbreak, the team is acting with caution, and is able to pivot much of this year’s programming to be presented in a digital format if need be.
“Last year was crazy, and we did all these new things we thought would work,” he says. “There’s been hella curveballs this year, with just new rules about what you can and can’t do.”

Cypherfest’s programming this year will spread across three days, from July 23 to 25. The first day will feature an online panel discussion on the topic of cultural preservation, moderated by Sanguine, a Montreal-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer.
“Right now, we’re locking down who’s gonna be on that, but there will be artists, leaders, and different people from all walks to talk about cultural preservation and what that means, and see how that overlaps in these different worlds.”

The Saturday will feature a show at the Yukon Arts Centre, which will be livestreamed online as well as hopefully presented to an in-person audience.
“We’re still gonna do it whether there’s an audience or not,” Simpson-Fowler says. “It’ll be streamed either way.”
For the final day, the Cypherfest team is planning a block party at the Heart of Riverdale. It will abide by current COVID restrictions on outdoor events. There will be breakdance battles, food and live music. Simpson-Fowler says part of the event will also involve a team repainting the back wall of the building.
“All our paint just came in and it’s stacked at the door,” he says. “We’ve got like 180 cans.”

When asked if there’s anything he’s most excited for, Simpson-Fowler says he is just excited in general and happy to be able to still put on Cypherfest in some capacity.
“It’s such a good summer,” he says. “We’re gonna get some type of gathering, whether it’s online or in-person. It’s tricky to be doing stuff right now, but we’ve got the right team to deal with these curveballs.”

To keep up with Cypherfest and watch a series of promotional videos, check out the Heart of Riverdale’s website at theheartofriverdale.com.

The Cypherfest team is (left to right) Riley Simpson-Fowler, Grace Simpson-Fowler, Tori Beemer, Alex Robinson and Kaska. PHOTOS: Manus Hopkins