Almost three years ago, the world fell in love with a completely unexpected phenomenon -- Filipino dancers performing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" as part of their rehabilitation therapy. And now, like every great trend, it's returned -- but this time, there's lyrics, there's choreography and there's the potential for much, much more.
"Prison Dancer", launching in March 2012, is a web series that takes its inspiration from those very same prisoners that racked up almost 50 million views on YouTube. Created by Toronto-based director and writer Romeo Candido, along with his partner Carmen De Jesus and producer Ana Serrano, "Prison Dancer" will be a 12-part web series, with the long-term plan landing it on the stage for a live performance. But first, they have to build up the love.
"We want it to be interactive -- we want audiences to really understand the songs, and the characters," explains Serrano. "All episodes will be karaoke-ified -- people can learn the songs, they can dance to the dance, they can send their renditions of the songs back to us. We want to create the first kind of participatory web series."
Serrano likens the concept to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, the Joss Whedon-created series starring Neil Patrick Harris that launched during the 2008 writers' strike, and was eventually turned into an album and a play.
In "Prison Dancer", there's a whole world of jailhouse characters, love stories and original songs that range from Disney-style ballads to west coast hip hop. Its star is past Canadian Idol favourite Mikey Bustos, whose tutorials about Filipino culture created their own viral sensation last year.
That's no coincidence, as Candido's Filipino heritage informed "Prison Dancer's" subject matter, thanks both to the prison's innovative program and the culture's musical DNA. "The viral videos were passed around as a quirky meme with headlines [like] 'those crazy Filipinos are at it again...', and much of the appeal of was that such a large group of 'hardened criminals' would agree to do such a thing," Candido notes. "To non-Filipinos it seems so outlandish and incredible. But speaking as a Filipino, it makes sense, as our culture is infused with an ability to find the lighter side of struggle, and to sing through our hardships."
Even the portrayal of criminals comes across as charming, and Candido and De Jesus had no reservations about turning this group into their play's main characters. "The musical, as a genre, is designed to romanticize its subject matter ... Did we have reservations at portraying criminals in a sympathetic light? No. It was our mission to portray these prison dancers with empathy, as they are, in many ways, extensions of us as people who are imprisoned by our mistakes and are just trying to find our song and dance again."
Both Serrano and Candido point to the unique opportunity afforded them by Canada's Independent Production Fund (IPF), the only funding source available anywhere for web series projects. "These kinds of web series are particular to Canada because of the funding that we receive -- we can experiment more freely. It's great to have the IPS be able to support these kinds of innovations," says Serrano.