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Review: The Gripping And Then We Danced Is Cinema As Good Citizenship

Levan Akin offers up a swooning gay romance as the centerpiece from which all of his other ideas radiate.

And Then We Danced
Photo: Music Box Films

Writer-director Levan Akin’s deconstruction of traditional Georgian dance is one of the driving forces of And Then We Danced. The opening credits sequence, which is interspersed with archival footage of the dance, sets the film up as a rumination on national themes. We eventually land on a tight close up of Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) as he trains for the competitive National Georgian Ensemble. His is an intensely masculine pursuit, and the effete Merab is struggling to keep up with the other men. “You’re too soft, you should be like a monument,” says his bruiser of an instructor, Aleko (Kakha Gogidze). Akin uses the tensions of the rehearsal room to observe the limits of social mobility, offering up a swooning gay romance as the centerpiece from which all of his other ideas radiate.

The bolt that ignites Merab’s soul is the charismatic Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Wearing an earring as he walks into Aleko’s dance studio, Irakli is a naturally gifted dancer, though he’s seemingly disillusioned about the ritualistic nature of Georgian dance. Akin captures the pair’s slowly growing attraction through a pattern of intensifying gestures, from glances and minute brushes to Merab and Irakli’s inability to stop smiling at each other. Their journey from friendship to romance is almost invisible. Lisabi Fridell’s camera circles the characters, intensely pushing the emotional tension that Merab feels while training, or out with friends, or navigating his strained home life. It moves closer and closer until it’s exploring their bodies along with them, subtly bringing the audience right into Merab’s head space.

Merab’s family struggles to make ends meet, but he pushes that concern to the back of his mind as he tends to his self-discovery: through music, dancing, and leaning his head on his mate. This is the first time that Merab has allowed himself to feel at ease with anyone, as his ultra-competitive training had previously made him an island of one. And outside the dance studio, he comes into increasing contact with a cross section of society, from his friend’s rich parents to trans women and clubbers. He’s largely accepted, finding a nation that’s more progressive than the strict culture around Georgian dance might have you believe.

Perhaps it’s that intensely felt perspective that far-right groups were afraid of as they threatened violence on ticket holders in Tbilisi and Batumi last year. The Catholic orthodoxy denounced the film for going against Georgian tradition and endorsing homosexuality, because rather than depicting characters defeated by their economic woes and persecution, being made to suffer for their impulses, Akin sees their joy and freedom and self-actualisation.

And Then We Danced, so light-headed as it trips through city streets and reflects its characters’ joie de vivre, is a love letter Georgia. But when the camera swoops in to highlight Khinkali dumplings, or Tbilisi street performances, or Irakli giddy over fresh bread, the film can feel touristic. Akin is Swedish but of Georgian descent, so he brings a certain outsider’s eye to the setting of the film, even a distinctly Scandinavian liberal outlook to the more authoritarian Georgian reality evidenced by the aforementioned protests.

And yet, these conflictions coalesce in the Georgian dance, which may seem to the outsider like a cross between ballet and mating ritual. “It’s the spirit of our nation,” says Soso Abramishvili’s fearsome ensemble director, implying that Merab is too effeminate to embody Georgian identity. His fluidity allows him to develop a different style of dancing that moves away from the rigidity of gender roles. That’s abhorrent to the dance establishment, because he’s reinventing Georgian dance, taking its form and modernising it, reflecting back the country that he experiences across the film. And Akin juxtaposes Merab’s fluidity when his largely absent construction-worker father (Aleko Begalishvili) is introduced, himself once a great Georgian dancer. If upholding the nation’s spirit is what makes a successful dancer, then we see in Merab’s father an anonymous, filthy man living on former glories.

Akin is unpretentious in dealing with his main characters’ secret love affair, instantly homing in on what makes the encounters between the sensitive Merab and the arrogant Irakli so deeply important to them: Irakli taking just a second too long to react with anger when someone asks if his girlfriend is good in bed; Merab sniffing Irakli’s t-shirt when he’s alone in the locker room; the moonlight hitting their bare skin as they embrace under a rock. In a tight 100 minutes, And Then We Danced breezes through its evaluation of Georgian tradition, with Gelbakhiani’s generous performance controlling almost every scene. This isn’t just cinema as good citizenship, it’s also gripping drama, and that’s what makes its politics so effective.

Cast: Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili, Ana Javakishvili, Giorgi Tsereteli, Kakha Gogidze, Tamar Bukhnikashvili, Ana Makharadze, Levan Gabrava, Marika Gogichaishvili, Aleko Begalishvili, Ninutsa Gabisonia Director: Levan Akin Screenwriter: Levan Akin Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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