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1,500 inmates dancing to Michael Jackson hit on YouTube inspire Filipino Canadian musical

A performance of Prison Dancer, a musical inspired by a 2007 viral YouTube post, is shown at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre earlier this year. The musical started a run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Thursday, and the show's Filipino Canadian co-creator calls it 'a moment for our community.'

A performance of Prison Dancer, a musical inspired by a 2007 viral YouTube post, is shown at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre earlier this year. The musical started a run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Thursday, and the show's Filipino Canadian co-creator calls it 'a moment for our community.'

Photo: (Nanc Price)


Prison Dancer has arrived at Ottawa's National Arts Centre for limited run

To most, the video wouldn't go much further than it already had. A post showing Filipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller may have led to a bit of a viral moment on YouTube in 2007, but afterwards it was expected to do what all other viral moments do: fade away.

But that's not what Romeo Candido saw.

I thought it was a no-brainer — I thought other people were going to write a musical about this, Candido, a Filipino Canadian writer and choreographer, told CBC News in a recent interview. I just thought it was ripe for storytelling.

That instinct bore out, because just over 15 years later, it led to the musical Prison Dancer — a fictionalized account of the 1,500 inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines seen in the video.

After a long period of writing and pitching, it made its way to debut at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre earlier this year — and on Thursday, it began a limited run at Ottawa's National Arts Centre.

WATCH | Canadian musical inspired by Filipino prison video:

Canadian musical brings viral Filipino prison ‘Thriller’ video to the stage

Filipino-Canadian creators Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus debut their new musical Prison Dancer in Ottawa. Inspired by a viral 2007 video that featured thousands of prisoners in the Philippines dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

But alongside seeing a production he co-created premiere at Canada's most prestigious theatrical space, Candido said there's an extra sense of accomplishment to seeing Prison Dancer make it there.

I just don't think the National Arts Centre has had this kind of Filipino power from behind the scenes, and on stage and as creators and producers, he said. This is a moment for our community.

That representation is seen throughout the show. From Candido and co-creator Carmen Leilani De Jesus, to its cast, to director Nina Lee Aquino and choreographer/star Julio Fuentes, Prison Dancer has been recognized as the first musical fully created by a Filipino Canadian group.

Team visited Philippines prison

Getting it to this stage was no easy task. After Candido first started working on the idea more than a decade ago, he ended up writing 50 songs, which were whittled down to 13 for the actual show.

But after debuting versions as web videos, a concert and a smaller production at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012, the show hit a sustained wall: The production team was out of money, and there were no opportunities for further performances.

It was only after they were provided with additional funding from the National Arts Centre's National Creation Fund that Candido and his team were able to go to Cebu itself in 2019 to spend a week with the inmates involved in the original video.

That trip fully distilled the focus of Prison Dancer as it now exists — how people suffering great hardship can find comfort through the arts. And while its creators viewed it as a universal message, the response from Edmonton's Filipino community was especially important.

Because as a community, we're not theatre-goers, we're concert-goers.... And I think it's largely because we never see ourselves there, Fuentes said. We're missing from theatre, and now this has filled such a void.

One of those theatre-goers who saw the importance of this performance was Allen Baylosis, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia studying contemporary Filipino theatrical performance. Although living in Vancouver, Baylosis flew to Edmonton to make sure he wouldn't miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

While there have been productions that tell stories from a Filipino Canadian perspective, he said, there have been limited examples where stories were written for a Filipino cast by a Filipino creator. That is especially true for musicals, Baylosis said, where songs meant to reflect their community are not created or performed by those in the culture they are meant to represent.

It is not under the voice of the people whose stories are about, and we are given, temporarily, voices. he said. But in this case, it is an all-Filipino artistic team. It is performed by Filipinos, made by Filipinos, in a play about Filipinos.

WATCH | Prisoners in Philippines dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller in 2007:

Theatrical renaissance

While there has been something of a renaissance when it comes to Filipino representation on stage (such as the off-Broadway production Here Lies Love, which later moved to Broadway), Alia Ceniza Rasul said it's still an astounding thing to see.

As a comedian, writer and managing artistic director of Toronto's Bad Dog Theatre Company, Rasul said she's only recently begun to make work based on celebrating her own identity, instead of hiding it or focusing on trauma porn.

Focusing on joy and celebration led her to create work such as her book of poetry, Super Important Filipina Thoughts. It's also something she sees reflected in Prison Dancer — which is what she said makes this project so important.

I think that's the wild thing for me — the fact that something that happened in a prison in the Philippines is [being] performed at this level in Ottawa, she said. I'm still wrapping my brain around that. I don't think that's something I could have imagined 10 years ago.

Jackson Weaver (new window) · CBC News