Levan Akin’s gorgeous coming-of-age tale And Then We Danced fairly glows with beauty, pain, hope, and joy. It is a thoroughly transporting film, one that makes you wish that you were part of its hero’s world instead of being a mere observer.
And Then We Danced is set in the nation of Georgia and features the hauntingly beautiful dance and music of traditional Georgian culture. The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a college-aged member-in-training of the National Georgian Ensemble, a troupe specializing in traditional dance. Merab has been chastely dating his dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), with whom he was first paired when they were just children, and the two have an easy, playful rapport that comes from many years of knowing each other and dancing together. If Mary suspects that her partner is gay, she keeps that suspicion under wraps until the truth becomes too obvious to ignore—which it does when a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), suddenly arrives from out of town and begins to claim more and more of Merab’s attention. Irakli is dashing and mysterious, and Merab is soon utterly fascinated by him. A relationship that should proceed apace, however, is complicated by the fact that both young men live in a sternly judgmental culture where being gay is a criminal offense. Further complexities arise when auditions are announced for a single, prestigious position in an ensemble piece, a position for which Merab and Irakli find themselves competitors.
While the burgeoning romance is absorbing, tender-hearted, frank, and real, the film’s heart is in its remarkable dance scenes, which all take place in the same rehearsal space. The dancing alone is a genuine joy to watch in and of itself, but it is also central to the drama. Merab clearly has enormous talent and a distinctive style of movement, but that style displeases his dance teacher, who frowns upon Merab’s playfulness and the femininity of his manner. “You must be like a nail,” the teacher snaps at him, revealing a key motif of the film: The dominant model of Georgian masculinity is built on hardness, seriousness, and—in his teacher’s words—“purity.” (At one point, the teacher barks at Merab, “There’s no sex in Georgian dance!” This turns out to be about as true as there being no crying in baseball.) One of the film’s tensions is whether Merab will be forced to abandon his own style or whether he will be able to retain it and show it to the world.
To the film’s credit, it’s not clear until the very end how any of its dilemmas will sort themselves out. Akin has a nimble, subtle touch, and he allows his highly skilled actors to evolve the story in an organic way. Meanwhile, the film’s charismatic young stars command our full attention at every moment, especially Gelbakhiani, whose enormous, expressive eyes reveal a universe of feeling. His Merab is a creature of vitality and vulnerability, wholly open to all the possibilities of his life. He is afraid but brave anyhow, burdened but hopeful, and full of the joyful yearning that being madly in love inevitably brings. And Then We Danced is entirely superb, a movie that never misses a step.