The grand and not so grand narratives of sexual awakening are a dime a dozen. Each one of us has a story to tell – and how often a story to embellish – at an early juncture of adolescence. More relevantly, within the annals of cinema, the terrain is a well-trodden one, assuming a subgenre all its own. Many a tawdry youth-oriented film has singlemindedly sexualized love, and thus vulgarized and grossly irrigated this honorable ideal. An entry of a preeminent kind, Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa is a lyrical and poetic tale that brings back respectability to eros so often shortchanged.
In truth, Yapan’s film does not merely touch upon pure and pristine love, but gracefully rebukes the tyranny of sanctioned love. As a tale exploring the first stirrings of homosexuality, Ang Sayaw is not so much about the wages of raging hormones as it is about the innocence and struggles of unconditioned, unmediated love. It posits a primordial world when gender roles have not been internalized. Yet it must be said in the same breath, it’s a tale meant for everyone, not least of whom those who compartmentalize love. Either way, it’s a film akin to a puzzle: it recomposes itself after each telling: a multifaceted gem that will mystify the most searching eye.
To begin to describe the plot is to simplify it. On the surface, it registers as much as the next film wanting to tell what it knows about sexual awakening and sexual incipience. Here, however, God is in the details: one must listen to the readings – and promptings, if one is inclined – of suggestive and transgressive poetry on the soundtrack as well as to the meaningful gestures between characters. A line of verse may be as significant as the import of a gaze.
In Yapan’s film, there are spades of either one. Verses of sexual initiation – from Ophie Dimalanta to Joi Barrios, from Benilda Santos to Merlinda Bobis – fill the soundtrack at every turn, readings from a literature class taught by a beautiful but curiously single teacher named Karen. There is little back story about her past except to suggest how she has sacrificed love in pursuit of the arts. Her life has become devoted to teaching not just the import of verse, but the language of dance. Marlon is a student smitten with her, though poetry, the kind that that demonstrates love regardless of gender, remains inscrutable to him. Karen’s assistant at her dance studio, Dennis, is in the same poetry class and has the tell-tale gaze.
Dennis has realized he has eyes alone for those of his own sex. When Marlon hires him in secret for dance lessons, a move to impress Karen, Dennis starts to draw his gaze closer. His lessons are not only instructive for the aspiring dancer but for the viewer, it yields the metaphor of how dance, as in other forms of cultural and social expression, is often a phallocentric performance. Man leads, and the woman follows. Man is active; woman, passive.
Here lies one of the film’s foremost curiosities: what happens when there are two men, or two women, performing the dance? What brand of dance is it? The dance of two left feet? Marlon and Dennis soon enough master the dance, not just dispelling our gendered assumptions, the tyranny of prescribed love, but here we see Karen, a kind of muse-like facilitator for the two youngsters, teary-eyed seeing, perhaps, a kind of synergy. Her gaze is a complex one.