“There is no sex in Georgian dance,” a stern instructor tells protagonist Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) in an early scene of “And Then We Danced” (2019). This directive, barked out when the young dancer imbues his movements with a bit too much personality for the rigid strictures of masculinity required by the nation’s rich folk tradition, strikes a distinctly ironic tone for viewers of Swedish-Georgian writer-director Levan Akin’s drama. As quickly as instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) moves to stifle Merab’s infectious energy, a new male dancer (Bachi Valishvili) enters the studio, catching Merab’s eye. When they embark on a taboo affair, their single-minded pursuit of artistic excellence in Georgia’s famous folk tradition unfurls their various facades in enchanting and unexpected ways.
“And Then We Danced” finds its best moments on this balance beam — seeking common ground for both the nation’s unique cultural tapestry and its contemporary challenges. Its folly comes when, perhaps flabbergasted by the wealth of meaning it uncovers, it inexplicably throws these triumphs off Tbilisi’s picturesque cliffs.
We should not be surprised that a film that gives equal consideration to both time-immemorial traditions and a distinctly modern take on sexuality hits a few bumps along the road. “And Then We Danced,” from the movement it depicts to the quality of its narrative structure to the events surrounding the film’s premiere in its home country, is nothing if not volatile. After its premiere at Cannes Film Festival last May, threats of violent protests greeted the film’s screenings when it came back to Georgia, with right-wing ultranationalist and pro-Russian factions branding the film as “against Georgian and Christian traditions.” The threats forced the government to intervene to ensure safety at the screenings, with Akin publicly lambasting the threats as “absurd.”
After watching “And Then We Danced,” the idea that Georgian traditions are being insulted seems absurd. Akin and his fellow filmmakers clearly hold the nation’s culture in high esteem, and their film juxtaposes the budding connection between Merab and Irakli with both men’s cellular links to their own heritage. This familiar burden weighs on Merab in particular, who comes from a lineage of revered folk dancers, including his ne’er-do-well brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli). Akin’s film reaches brilliance in its ability to portray the love between the men at its center as a logical and foreseeable outcome of their creative souls, forged intimately in their cultural landscape. With each close-up of Merab’s legs thumping rapidly along the floor and each shaking thud as he falls, Akin and cinematographer Lisabi Fridell remove another barrier between Merab’s attraction to Irakli and his pursuit of artistic excellence.
Yet, “And Then We Danced” is just as apt to fritter this thematic wealth away in the next moment. For each of its transcendent sequences, like its mesmerizing depiction of a group of the country’s famed polyphonic singers, it offers up a poorly-developed character like Merab’s longtime partner and vague girlfriend, who fades away as quickly as she’s introduced, only to resurface with unearned gravitas later on. Nowhere is this frustration more evident than the film’s cinematic high point: as their friends sleep at a countryside birthday retreat, Merab, shirtless in the amber light, dances before Irakli to Robyn’s “Honey” (2018) (an inch-perfect addition to the soundtrack). Gelbakhiani’s delicately-crafted motion bewitches us. Just as he draws closer, as the scene reaches the moment of greatest potential, we cut away before Irakli can arise, as if the movie has started awake from a dream.
“And Then We Danced” has huge aspirations. With Gelbhakiani deftly guiding us emotionally through a fraught intimation of queer life in a deeply traditional nation, the film, at times, finds something wholly breathtaking. In other places, though, Akin seems to forget these lofty aims, treading in thin characterization and cliched story beats. In the love affair it depicts, “And Then We Danced” achieves a profound meditation on the paradoxes of tradition, love and the creative process. When compared to the scenery surrounding it, however, this searing journey must stand en pointe, teetering without any narrative support.