Philippine Prisoners Resurrect Busby Berkeley

As a videodance artist, I have to comment on the viral video sensation of the Philippine Prison dances that have rocked Youtube as of late. These massive stagings, in which up to 1600 prisoners dance to pop hits in perfect unison, are as awesome and powerful as they are campy and scary. Byron Garcia, a security consultant for the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre started the dance fitness program as a way to improve inmates’ behaviour and increase their participation in exercises. However the inspiration to start filming the routines came when Mr. Garcia saw prisoners exercising in the prison courtyard and noticed patterns and waves in their movement which piqued his inner Busby Berkeley. The result was a string of videos and a gigantic Youtube hit with “Thriller” performed by 1500 prisoners and featuring inmates Crisanto Nierre as “Michael Jackson,” and Wenjiel Resane as his “girlfriend”. “Thriller” has been viewed over 6 million times now on Youtube. The popularity of the videos have become a huge source of pride for the inmates, and now the CPDRC is becoming a veritable production house of grand spectacle dance films, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the heyday of American movie musicals in the 30’s and 40’s.

“Thriller” (original upload)


While one side of me is thrilled about this phenomenon of using dance as a therapeutic, community-building, grand-spectacle-making means, at the same time there is something so creepy about watching hundreds of incarcerated men in orange uniforms dancing in formation. It immediately evoked images for me of concentration camps, Maoist rallies, and Nazi propaganda films. It seems to be the embodiment of Fritz Lang’s industrial age nightmare in “Metropolis” in which the masses of humanity are reduced to nothing but machine like drones toiling underground in obscurity.

“Metropolis” – Molochmaschine (Moloch machine)

Still, upon further reflection I realized that my reactions were very much mired in a Western Anglo-American value system where individuality is prized above all else. In many parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, collective dance, music and ritual is a powerful, sacred thing. I had the privilege of studying Balinese Monkey Chant (kecak) at CalArts with the master dancer/musician I Nyoman Wenten. Performing in this incredibly complex group ritual was one of the most amazing artistic experiences of my life. To lose one’s sense of self even for a few minutes and to become just one cell in a greater organism is an awesome state of being which the Western world has become very afraid of. We’ve seen it lead to unfathomable destruction with two World Wars and countless hate crimes. However, we’ve forgotten that there is equal evidence of collective ritual being used to transcend despair and destitution and to heal and empower whole communities of people.

Kecak scene from “Baraka”

Ultimately I applaud the dance videos of the CPDRC inmates. Not only is the act of dancing having a powerful effect on these people’s lives, but their ability to share their work with the entire world through video transforms what they are doing into an act of artistic expression. They may be caged within four prison walls, but collectively they have reached farther and made deeper connections with the outside world than most of us “free” individuals ever could.

Now I’ll leave you with a little dream from the greatest collective choreographer of them all…

“Spin a Little Web of Dreams” (Busby Berkeley)

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4 Responses to Philippine Prisoners Resurrect Busby Berkeley

  1. Maria says:

    Anna, first of all, from what I’ve read so far you are a great addition to Great Dance.. welcome to blogging!

    This must be the most blogged about dance video in the history of youtube. Many people (myself included) have shared and commented about it on their blog, but this is the most insightful commentary I have seen yet. You have really examined all aspects of it.

    I thought about the fascist angle of it as well, but then I read a BBC article about it and the inmates they interviewed all seemed really proud that they had been a part of something so successful. They were in awe of their fame and satisfied that so many people had been interested and amazed by their dancing.

    Interesting you should bring up that scene from Baraka… do you know anything about it? I was mesmerized by it when I saw the movie.

    Finally, nice way to tie it all together with the Busby Berkeley example. It’s incredible how even the smallest of movements, when combined in sheer quantity can create something spectacular. The Berkely piece certainly didn’t require a great deal of talent, but the final effect is pretty over the top and spectacular. I felt the same when I saw the inmates dance, particularly with the algorithm dance.

  2. Maria,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad I was able to still add something new to the discussion around this huge videodance phenomenon!

    The scene from Baraka is a beautifully staged depiction of kecak, the Balinese Monkey Chant. This is a traditional dramatic rendition of the Hindu epic myth: the Ramayana. The Monkey Chant specifically deals with the part of the story in which Hanuman, the monkey god, rounds up his monkey army and aids Rama in rescuing his wife Sita from the evil King Ravana. It’s a great story and the way it is told in the Monkey Chant is with a huge group of men (the monkeys) sitting in a circle chanting and elaborately dressed dancers representing the main characters of the story dancing out the narrative in the middle of the circle (the Baraka scene doesn’t show this). At the end of the chant there is a great battle between Hanuman’s monkey army and Ravana’s demon army. You can see this acted out in the Baraka clip when half the men lie back in defeat and the other half stand up and chant waving their arms and hands. The chanting itself is really really hard. It’s all interlocking poly-rhythms that are constantly changing. You can see in this clip that there is a leader who cues the group when to change (he is the older man with the white mark on his forehead). There are also chanters who just keep the tempo with their voices and this keeps everyone together as well.

    It’s so much fun, and I highly recommend checking out any Balinese music and dance performances. All their music and dance is based on various interlocking rhythms that come together through individual parts merging into one.

    I don’t know very much about Philippino performing arts, however I’m pretty sure that they are similar in their compositional structures to Indonesian forms. By connecting the Monkey Chant with the Cebu prison dances I was trying to show that there is a very old and established tradition of group arts in Southeast Asia which is perhaps why all those prisoners were willing and able to make these giant unison dance spectacles. Can you imagine this happening in an American prison?

    As for Busby, I just love his visions (even if one could argue they’re sexist in their objectification of women). His choreographic career started in the army when he was a drill sargent, and came with all these elaborate marching drills. After the war (I guess WWI?) he ended up in Hollywood and started creating elaborate marching drills on blonde women! The rest is history. He also invented some ground-breaking techniques for shooting dance. I’ll get into all his innovations in another post.

    Thanks for following the dots with me, it was fun to put all those clips together!

  3. mei says:

    me and mom watched that video only a min. ago

    ~mEi

  4. Pingback: Movement Media Videodance Contest Winners: Pop Dance Phenomenon! « Move the Frame

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