Breaking free from the shackles of tradition is the underlying theme of And Then We Danced as Georgian folklore dancer Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) heads this Swedish- Georgian production by Levan Akin (The Circle, Certain People).
In Georgia homosexuality is not illegal, but the tight grip of the Christian Orthodox church makes it a complete societal no no. Merab’s homosexual proclivities come to the fore with the appearance of new recruit Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) to his dance group, the National Georgian Ensemble. A brief entanglement with Irakli and subsequent outing awakens Merab to the possibility of a free and open life, inadvertently becoming the poster boy of liberal gay youth in a country seeped in conservatism.
Merab attends exhaustive dance classes by day and works in a restaurant by night. The financial responsibility of his household lies solely on him. Struggling to make ends meet; the electricity is cut off, bringing morsels of left-over restaurant food to feed his mother, grandmother and brother. He just about manages to keep it together, where every single hour of his day is accounted for. When the charmingly handsome out-of-towner Irakli is enrolled into the group, he conjures up a mix of competitiveness and attraction within Merab. The instant chemistry between the two builds over the course and is eventually consummated in a weekend group getaway to one of the dancer’s countryside house. Reality comes crushing once they return to Tiblisi. Irakli is ushered back to his hometown to tend to his dying father and finds himself engaged. Merab is left high and dry amidst a cloud of gay rumours, finding himself at the receiving end of bullying, further jeopardizing his chances for a professional career as a dancer.
Gelbakhiani’s Merab is instantly likeable, injecting a complexity and seriousness to Merab yet simultaneously conveying his youthful exuberance and naivety. Physically his embodiment of Merab is incredibly precise with his slight figure, animated angular face and the slight somatic details such as the over the top gesticulations, forever reprimanded by his teacher for being too effeminate. Gelbakhiani’s natural delivery extends to every single cast member, most of them professional dancers (Gelbakhiani is a contemporary dancer by trade) making the dance sequences feel like an extension of their performance, rather than added montages.
The hyper realistic cinematography by Lisabi Fridell, uses an abundance of natural light; countless up-close face shots, extended scenes of dance rehearsals, traditional weddings, local food and architecture, as well as the ubiquitous presence of nature. There is the frequent use of jittery POV camera work coupled with a hurried pace reflecting Merab’s restlessness, from all the constant life juggling and the shedding of the shackles of tradition.
Akin’s film on paper is typical, a revisited coming-out story in a conservative setting, where through adversity comes empowerment and self-acceptance. Yet on the screen, Akin manages to elevate the story into something thrillingly authentic. Merab’s predicament highlights the inescapable religious, post-Soviet influence on a poverty-stricken society along with the pervasive toxic masculinity that infiltrates everything. On the flipside, we also see a desire for progression, specifically within the youth, for a more liberal, outward life. Every single scene of And Then We Danced is an astute observation of this internal struggle.