In an equitable world, Levan Gelbakhiani, the lead actor in the Tbilisi-set “And Then We Danced,” would be thrust to stardom for his extraordinary performance as a dancer who finally acts on his gay desires. But this is far from an equitable world, and though the uneven film is likely to get significant attention from festivals, when was the last time a captivating young Georgian actor-dancer made it big on the international scene?
Following its launch in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, writer-director Levan Akin’s second feature should easily leap beyond the LGBT ghetto and find love among multiple demographics. But as in Akin’s previous film, “Certain People,” the script here too often slips into cliché, yet the filmmaking skills are frequently exceptional and Gelbakhiani is riveting. Akin goes to great lengths to ensure that audiences unfamiliar with Georgian customs appreciate just how formalized and conservative traditional Georgian dance can be in a country not exactly known for socially liberal leanings.
When first seen in the studio, Merab (Gelbakhiani) is berated by instructor Aliko (Gogidze) for not being formulaic enough: His eyes are too playful, his posture too soft. “There is no sex in Georgian dance!” thunders the brooding ballet master, but just at that moment in walks Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a new student who immediately captures Merab’s eye.
Dance is in Merab’s DNA: His separated parents Teona (Tamar Bukhnikashvili) and Ioseb (Aleko Begalishvili) and grandmother (Marika Gogichaishvili) were all professionals, though their moments in the sun were brief, and his troublemaking brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) is also at the school, despite lacking the same sense of vocation. Hard-working Merab is drawn to impish Irakli, a rule-breaker who easily raises Aliko’s hackles, and the two are occasionally paired in male duets whose macho nature is subverted by Merab’s feelings of attraction.
Upcoming national auditions increase tension, so a break for the troupe at the countryside house of Merab’s dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) is a welcome chance for everyone to let off steam, with the help of alcohol. Late at night, Merab and Irakli find themselves alone, and a shirtless Merab tosses on a woolly white papakha hat as he dances to Robyn’s “Honey,” with its deliciously provocative line, “Come get your honey.” It’s an outstanding scene, showcasing Gelbakhiani’s bewitching screen presence and joy-giving dance moves, yet just at the moment when the viewer is eager to let the scene play out to the end of the song, Akin inexplicably cuts away, undermining the build-up.
Later, when the two young men finally make love, the act opens up a floodgate of emotions for Merab, who can’t think of anyone else but Irakli. Hovering over his passion is the cautionary story of a former dance school pupil, now an object of ridicule, whose coming out was the start of a fast decline leading to a life of hustling on the streets. That’s what Mary is terrified will happen to Merab as she watches her friend, once a potential boyfriend, open himself up to desires that pit him headlong against the country’s very conservative traditions.
Mary (sympathetically played by Javakishvili) is but one of several underwritten characters whose stereotyped function — in her case, as the hesitant but ultimately supportive female friend — cries out for at least a bit more development to avoid the sense that we’ve seen this figure far too many times. David too is a cliché throughout most of the film, his gift for screwing up rather loosely drawn, but then almost at the end, Akin includes a scene between the two brothers of rare emotional depth that highlights even further the dissonance between the expertly conceived moments and their weaker counterparts. The director, born in Sweden to Georgian parents, has stated that he developed his story following numerous interviews with gay Georgians, and while there’s no arguing the truth of the situations, the script needs sharper writing to translate commonalities into a fresher, more trenchant storyline.
That said, it’s important to add that for audiences less familiar with the robust back catalog of coming-out stories, “And Then We Danced” is certain to touch many receptive chords. This goes beyond the basic truths of the narrative, with its predictable trajectory, and can firmly be ascribed to the film’s exceptional technique and exciting lead actor. Gifted as both a thrilling dancer and a nuanced actor, Gelbakhiani’s magnetic presence goes a long way toward papering over some of the more timeworn plot elements (an injured foot subplot, for example, is especially unnecessary), and the film should make audiences clamor for more vehicles that feature his seemingly effortless ability to radiate joy.
Also deserving significant praise is the visual language Akin crafts through his collaboration with cinematographer Lisabi Fridell (“Something Must Break”), whose marvelously fluid camerawork elides with the emotional states of protagonists and audience. For example, during a scene at a party toward the end, the camera glides through the rooms, fixed on Merab in a moment of crisis, and then loses him only to seamlessly find him through a window, one floor below on the street. It’s a masterful shot, quietly bravura without calling attention to itself. Editing is also a strong suit, apart from that frustrating cut during the Robyn song.