Preview: Weesageechak 29 Festival (Native Earth Performing Arts)

Photo of Weesageechak 29Currently in its 29th iteration, the Weesageechak Begins To Dance Festival is an annual festival of Indigenous work curated by Native Earth Performing Arts.  This year’s festival brings a compelling selection of interdisciplinary new works and works-in-progress from both national and international Indigenous artists to the Aki Studio until November 19th. We spoke to Artistic Director Ryan Cunningham about what we can look forward to at Weesageechak 29:

This is the 29th year of the Weesageechak Begins To Dance Festival. Can you talk about the history of the festival and its association with Native Earth Performing Arts?

Weesageechak was created by Tomson Highway 29 years ago when he was the Artistic Director of Native Earth. The festival grew out of the work of what Tomson described as “about 10 poets, short-story writers and playwrights working in… a movement to put Native literature on the map. It’s called the Committee to Re-Establish the Trickster… to work on script development and the nurturing of the native writers. I see that as a mandate of the company”.

And this mandate continues to be one of our core values as a company. The focus of the festival has grown to support and include artists working in every artistic medium. Because we bring in artists from across Turtle Island, Weesageechak has become an incredible incubator for Indigenous work across the country. It’s also where Native Earth develops works which eventually premiere as full productions in our seasons.

The artists and productions in this year’s festival spans many different places and nations. What is the curatorial process for the festival? What do you or your team look for?

Yes, it’s exciting to have artists from across the country and even Australia and the US this year. It’s also an honour to be in the position where we can support artists at a national and international level. It’s so important to have representation of different Nations at this festival. Our community is so diverse and separated by distance it is very important for us to come together, share our stories and build life-long artistic relationships. The festival ends up spawning a lot of collaborations between artists who would have never had the chance to work together or see each others work.

In choosing our programming we use a combination of curation and a jury process. One of the reasons why I expanded the festival to an eleven day schedule was to offer a more holistic approach to development support. We now have the capacity to include work that may have just premiered or is on its first tour. The work that is more fully developed tends to be the curated programming. Many of which have already been at the past iterations of the Weesageechak festival at an earlier development phase.

Most of the programming however is chosen from our artist submissions and juried by a team from our staff. It’s basically the same model that our public funders use with a peer assessed jury and supports a broad spectrum of work.

A lot of the programming descriptions evoke themes of love and identity. Are there other central issues or ideas that run through this year’s festival?

Another big theme this year is family, the question of what constitutes family and what makes the families we create so important for us.

Cuz by Australia’s Billy McPherson is all about the family bonds we have with the people in our lives: whether they are blood relatives, first and second cousins, or no blood relation at all.

Cheyenne Scott, a graduate from our creator’s unit, the Animikiig Training Program, explores the disconnect that can exist in families in her new play SPAWN.

Our final reading will be of Brad Fraser’s new play Ménage à Trois which explores what family can mean between three best friends over the span of their lives.

There seems to be a long-overdue increase in public awareness and social media action on issues such as MMIW, residential schools, and the historic gathering at Standing Rock. Do you see a similar movement arising in the arts community? How does this year’s festival respond to the activism and increase in public consciousness?

Yes… and Yes. Our festival doesn’t respond to the community’s activism. We are part of the activism. The very fact that we are telling our stories publicly so soon after our cultural genocide is an act of activism.

What can Toronto audiences and artists do to promote and support Indigenous artists?

Promote and support Indigenous artists. Come to our festival. Go to a pow-wow. Check out the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina and Bloor. They have a great gift shop and lots of programming every week. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.


  • Weesageechak 29 continues until November 19, 2016 at the Aki Studio on the main level of the Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas Street East).
  • A list of all the events can be found here.
  • Single tickets are $15 and available online. Festival passes are available for $60 by telephone at 416-531-1402. All online and telephone purchases are available by credit card only. At the door payments can be made by cash, debit, VISA and Mastercard.

Image provided by the company.