The very trad meets meets the very not in And Then We Danced, a pungently flavoured drama about a wild love affair between two men who dance with the Georgian national troupe.
Black Swan and Flashdance are the two most obvious points of reference, as punishing regimes take thir physical toll and rivalries for the top slot combine with a push to innovate against the dead hand of tradition, the entire raison d’etre of a troupe like the one that Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) dances in.
He’s perhaps not the best, the most naturally gifted dancer in the troupe, but he’s prepared to do whatever is necessary to make the grade and get into the “main ensemble”, a gateway guarded by taskmaster Aleko (Kakha Gogidze), the stern bear of a tutor slow to praise and quick to criticise.
Messing with Merab’s head in more than one way is Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a new arrival in the troupe – bold where Merab is meek, more naturally talented maybe and with an equal determination to get into the main troupe. He looks faintly like Channing Tatum, which Merab has noticed, and Mary (Ana Javakishvili), Merab’s dance partner since childhood, has noticed that Merab has noticed.
At the point where Irakli arrives the grapevine is abuzz with gossip about a former male dancer, who was found having sex with another man – “an Armenian!” – and is now for his sins languishing in a monastery (news of what goes on in monasteries obviously not having arrived in Georgia yet).
Giving the lie to the notion that all male dancers are in any case gay, this is a stoutly homophobic environment, the policing of bodies going way beyond the practice room. There’s always a “faggot!” ready to be lobbed like a grenade.
Anyhow, an evening of heavy drinking – hey Georgia – and several scenes of flashing looks and dance-sanctioned physicality come to a head in a brief but fiery sexual encounter between Merab and Irakli.
Boy wins girl, boy loses girl. And in a section where the stakes are never quite exploited as fully as they might have been, Irakli disappears, leaving Merab wondering what’s going on, just as the all-important try-outs for the main ensemble loom.
There’s an unexplored tragedy lurking in And Then We Danced in the story of Mary and Merab. She’s clearly in love with him but while Ana Javakishvili pulses empathetic waves of longing from start to finish, the plot barely goes to her corner. A pity, especially given that Irakli disappears for reasons which only later become apparent, leaving a bit of a dramatic hole.
Writer/director Levan Akin has something else in mind, having cleared the stage so Merab can have a more fully realised phase of “discovering who he really is”, which includes an evening of wild gay abandon out on Tibilisi’s wilder shores – with men who wear lippy and sashay rather than walk.
Plumping for dancers who can act rather than actors who can dance (the Black Swan route) works brilliantly in the film’s favour, and Gelbakhiani in particular entirely justifies that decision with a performance that is massively committed, emotionally as well as physically.
The meeting of modern mores with a more traditional mindset – can I be gay and Georgian, particularly in a redoubt of conservative Georgian-ness? – is a theme that seems to be on the wind at the moment. Just a couple of weeks ago I watched Breaking Fast, a story about a devout gay Muslim caught in the same cleft stick. The answer then was also yes. It would be interesting to see a film where the answer was no. No?
Tbilisi always looks good in a movie (see 2003’s Since Otar Left for confirmation) and the wooden facades of the old buildings look particularly fine in warm, intimate cinematography by DP Lisabi Fridell that really helps situate us inside the culture. The soundtrack is fabulous too – plaintive songs, stirring voices, unusual harmonies – and helps conjure the vibe of a society coming to terms with something that’s always been present but pushed to the margins. (Akin has helpfully put the playlist up on Spotify.)
And Then We Danced – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021