Producers: Mathilde Dedye and Ketie Danelia   Director: Levan Akin   Screenplay: Levan Akin   Cast: Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili, Ana Javakishvili, Giorgi Tsereteli, Ninutsa Gabisonia, Kakha Gogidze, Tamar Bukhnikashvili, Ana Makharadze, Levan Gabrava, Marika Gogichaishvili and Aleko Begalishvili   Distributor: Music Box Films

Grade:   B 

It’s always refreshing when a film takes us to a place we’re unlikely to have visited before; even if the journey meanders, the excitement of discovery carries us along.  It’s even better when the film also introduces a remarkable new talent in the process.

Levan Akin’s film does both.  It’s set in Tbilisi, Georgia, at a dance academy where students train in traditional national routines under the harsh gaze of taskmaster Aliko (Kakha Gogidze).  Among the pupils who hope to win an audition for the Georgia National Ballet is Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a sinewy, golden-haired young man paired in duets with his girlfriend Mary (Ana Javakishvili). 

Merab is intensity personified on the dance floor; he comes from a dancing family—his now-estranged parents Teona (Tamar Bukhnikashvili) and Ioseb (Alejo Begalishvili) were professionals, as was his grandmother (Marika Gogichaishvili), and his more virile brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) is also a student at the academy, though a much less serious one who prefers spending his time carousing rather than going to practice.  But Aleko finds Merab’s style too sensual to be truly Georgian.

Enter a newcomer to the group, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), from Batumi.  He’s more than a little arrogant, and Merab is envious of him; but he’s also attracted to the dark fellow, and after they’re paired by Aliko is some male duets, his interest is all the more aroused.  When the whole troupe goes off to Mary’s country house for a fling to relieve the stress everyone feels as auditions for the ballet loom, the two link up, though Irakli has indicated that he has a girl back home toward whom he has serious intentions.

What Swedish-born Akin has crafted here, of course, is a coming-out story, one distinguished not so much by the fact that it’s set in the world of dance, but that it’s set in the world of traditional dance in Georgia, where societal expectations are as rigorously conventional as the steps of the routines Merab and Irakli perform.  In terms of its overall trajectory, the tale does not hold a great many surprises.

But Akin’s narrative approach is not equally rigorous; he prefers a looser, more digressive style of storytelling.  Sometimes that works well: the depiction of Merab’s home life (he lives with his mother, who’s constantly getting into disputes with their neighbors, and grandmother, with David periodically bursting in drunk), is excellent, with many small nuances, as when Teona remarks as they sit in the dark after their electricity has been cut off that it reminds her of the days of Shevardnadze. 

On the other hand, the material dealing with Merab’s job as a waiter, while colorfully drawn (his boss is a real tyrant), seems extraneous, and in the second half the picture wanders in too many directions as Merab falls in with the crowd of young gays out for fun in the city and David suddenly announces that he’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant and is getting married.  (On the other hand, the wedding-party scene gives production designer Teo Baramidze and cinematographer Lisabi Fridell, whose work is overall excellent, a special chance to shine: one tracking shot is particularly impressive.  Costume designer Nini Jincharadze also outdoes herself here.  And there is a poignant scene between the two brothers near the close.)  One should also note the expert editing by Akin and Simon Carlgren, as well as the musical selections, new and traditional both, by Zvlad Mgebry and Ben Wheeler. 

The film’s most significant asset, however, is Gelbakhiani, who proves a magnetic presence in terms of both his acting and his dancing.  With his thin, soulful face (he looks rather like a young Roman Polanski) he beautifully captures Merab’s yearning both for professional success and for love, and his final dance for Aliko and his even more hidebound superior is a real tour de force (done in traditional costume, but also, per the narrative, with an injured ankle).

Valishvili and Javakishvili must contend with less fully developed characters, but both certainly meet Akin’s demands, and the rest of the cast, especially the bear-like Gogidze and the raffish Tsereteli, offer vivid turns.

“And Then We Danced” is uneven, but its unusual locale and stunning lead performance make it worth seeking out.