Rating: (3 stars)
“And Then We Danced” is a sinuous, seductive bundle of contradictions. Set in the world of Georgian dance — a centuries-old tradition that is still a powerful force in that country — this story of a young dancer’s self-discovery both celebrates the precision and athletic rigor of an ancient choreographic form, and critiques its most hidebound resistance to change.
Levan Gelbakhiani plays Merab, whose tendency to inject sensual flourishes into the sharply angular movements of Georgian dance invites biting comments from his martinet of a teacher. “You need to be like a nail,” the teacher scolds Merab. “You’re too soft.” What Merab lacks in natural ability he makes up for in a tireless work ethic: Between waiting tables at a Tbilisi restaurant and looking after his depressed mother and binge-drinking brother, he takes every opportunity he can to practice, in the hopes that he and his longtime training partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) will one day be chosen to join the prestigious national company.
Merab’s ambitions are jostled when Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) shows up one day. Not only is the dreamy-looking newcomer more organically gifted, but Merab feels an unmistakable pull toward his charisma and physical grace. Rivalry, friendship and romance ensue, throughout encounters inside and outside the dance studio, as Merab fights to acknowledge his feelings within a culture defined by strict — and deeply homophobic — notions of masculinity.
Written and directed by Levan Akin, a Swedish filmmaker of Georgian descent, “And Then We Danced” doesn’t break the mold in structure or emotional beats: This is a story viewers have seen before, whether in the form of “Flashdance,” “My Beautiful Laundrette” or “Bend it Like Beckham.” But Akin grounds otherwise familiar plot points in the evocative specifics of Georgian society, presenting its insularity and conservatism alongside a gay subculture that to this day the country officially doesn’t recognize as existing. In addition to thrilling numbers performed by an ensemble of handsome real-life dancers, Akin includes a gorgeous sequence set at a house party in the country, where guests sing a folk song in the haunting polyphonic harmony that distinguishes Georgian folk music.
Akin’s other triumph in “And Then We Danced” is in casting Gelbakhiani, a dancer he discovered on Instagram, who gives Merab the kind of innocence and guilelessness that earns instant sympathy from the audience. Blessed with wide green eyes and an expansive grin, Gelbakhiani is a joy to watch, whether he’s moving across a dance studio floor or giving an impromptu come-hither shimmy set to a pop tune by Robyn. As Merab’s passion grows, “And Then We Danced” becomes more achingly poignant, reaching a mournful climax during a stunning tracking shot that follows Akin’s lovesick protagonist through a lively wedding party.
What follows may not be surprising, but it’s no less effective for that. In Akin’s capable hands, “And Then We Danced” becomes an affecting testament to heartbreak, resilience and emotional expression at its most liberated and life-affirming.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains smoking, profanity, gay epithets and scenes of sexuality. In Georgian with subtitles. 113 minutes.