“Georgian dance is about masculinity,” young Merab is told by his severe troupe leader in Levan Akin’s controversial film And Then We Danced. The film has been the subject of heated debate in Georgia since it went into production. (Death threats were frequent enough to necessitate armed security on the set.) Anxieties over masculinity will dog Merab (played by wonderful newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani) as he struggles to perfect the art of the Georgia’s dance tradition that has played no small part in keeping a national identity present throughout the years under the Soviet Union.
Merab works at his moves during the day and helps support his small family by waiting tables at night. His brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) can’t be counted on to walk the straight and narrow and frequently gets into trouble that drags Merab down. His mother, meanwhile, appears to stick to the house in a depressive state and his grandmother keeps the home warm with her barbed wisdom and candour. Merab has a girlfriend, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), but its an uncomplicated affair whose lack of friction is explained when handsome Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) joins the dance troupe and captures our hero’s eye.
Their friendship develops over time spent in private rehearsals. They prepare and compete for the one audition slot that has opened up in the troupe’s mainstage company. However, a furtive moment during a trip to Mary’s father’s country house leads to lovemaking in the woods. For Merab, it’s the beginning of a love affair, but is it the same for Irakli? This hopeful and sensitive young man must now navigate a whirlwind of feelings as he prepares for his audition, tries to figure out his relationship with Irakli, and struggles under the fear of either his girlfriend, his family, or his colleagues as they learn the truth about about him.
Akin, born in Sweden of Georgian origin, wisely avoids the worst traps of manipulative soap opera by never letting the film wallow in its own dread. Merab is afraid of people finding out that he’s gay because he fears that they’ll take away his joy at what he can finally acknowledge about himself (rather than the wrestling with self-hatred that we see in the almost unwatchable Head On by Ana Kokkinos). Gelbakhiani’s fresh and appealing face, as well as his skill on the dance floor, keep the romantic melodrama feeling light. He gives viewers something to cling to even when other aspects of the film don’t work that well, like the fact that Valishvili gives off no notable sexual energy and has little chemistry with his co-star. (However, anyone who remembers their first affair at that age will note that they hardly held out for much more when deciding who to be obsessed with.)
Georgia’s National Ballet refused to give any assistance to the production, instructing all other similar organizations to do the same and it hurts the film a bit. What dancing we see always feels slight. It’s gorgeously done, but generally under-explored as an art form in the film. The choreographer for And Then We Danced chose to remain anonymous and, since its release, the country’s Ministry of Culture refused travel funding for cast and crew to attend its screening at Cannes (the director and star went on their own dime).
It’s a shame with all the trouble put into making it that Akin couldn’t come up with much more than a standard coming-out plot with a touch of Flashdance. And Then We Danced only periodically feels new, but it avoids the worst clichés of coming-out dramas. In avoiding unnecessary explosive conflicts and focusing on his beautiful and sympathetic lead, Akin makes the familiar go down smoothly. Ralph Fiennes‘ The White Crow, while not a masterpiece, did a much better job of pairing the art of dance with a character’s conflicted sense of self and, in employing Nureyev’s own hands-off approach to the character’s sexuality, made a much stronger point of damning the cultures of toxic masculinity that ruin the experience of participating in the arts.