Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa can be described with a word that often means death for movies: “educational.” The film devotes entire scenes to the analysis of poetry, treating audiences to what is essentially a lesson in literary criticism. The great feat of the film is that it doesn’t feel academic, skillfully weaving in the lessons in a graceful little story about longing. Like a great teacher, the film offers an education without imposing one, letting the student arrive at the knowledge willingly.
College student Marlon (Paulo Avelino) has a crush on his literature professor Karen (Jean Garcia). He follows her after school one day and discovers that she also teaches dance at a small studio. He decides to enroll in the class in hopes of impressing his teacher. To help him with that, he asks his classmate Dennis (Rocco Nacino), who works as an assistant dance instructor to Karen, to teach him the dances before he actually enrolls. Unbeknownst to Marlon, Dennis also has a bit of a crush on him. Soon, a strange relationship forms between the three, dance and literature pushing them together in ways that they did not expect.
The plot was borne out of the poems of feminist poets Rebecca Anonuevo, Joi Barros, Merlinda Bobis, Ophelia Dimalanta, Ruth Elynia Mabanglo and Benilda Santos. Narrative cinema hasn’t historically been a great medium for the expression of poetry. They are two very different beasts, each one governed by its own specific set of rules. The film immediately disarms these concerns in its first ten minutes, in a blockbuster sequence that brilliantly melds poetic verse with cinematic language. The interplay between the two disciplines provides the space for a rather elegant display of exposition, revealing shades of information through tone and rhythm rather than speech.
The rest of the film isn’t as aggressively edited as those first ten minutes, but aside from one clunky scene near the end, it’s all still largely about showing, and not telling. The largest stretches of dialogue are reserved for analyzing poetry, keeping the tangled emotions of the characters just smoldering in the background. The film is more notable for its use of silence. This isn’t really so much a story about love as it is about longing. Love is often spoken, but longing is not. It resides in glances, and emerges in the free expression of movement in dance. The film is content with depicting that strange tragedy, and it finds beauty in the long silences that fill up its characters’ lives.
The intricate dance choreography is ably captured by the film’s graceful cinematography, and it’s more than ably performed by the film’s cast. Jean Garcia delivers one of the most impressive acting performances of the year. She is reserved and complex, and she’s able to fill the film’s silences with a wealth of history and emotion. Paulo Avelino and Rocco Nacino hold up their end of the bargain as well. Their characters are broader, but they still handle them with grace and restraint. The two especially shine in the dance sequences, where their body language expresses more than words ever can.
Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa stumbles in its third act, losing some of its shine as a couple of blunter storytelling choices distract from the grace of what had come before. But all in all the film is still quite the achievement. Its greatest trick lies in its ability to hold back the answers, prodding audiences to fill in the blanks. It gives them the space to explore their own interpretation of the ideas being presented. There are movies that preach, wanting nothing more than to be instructional. The genius of this movie is that it asks its audience to dance.