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)