And Then We Danced is something of a mess, but at times it’s a gorgeous mess. It opens with archival shots of traditional dancing in the country of Georgia, and for the rest of the film you can’t get the sight of the muscular, intricate dancing and the music out of your head.
The movie is written and directed by Levan Akin, a Georgian born in Sweden, but the film is made in Georgia, and centers on dancers in the National Georgian Ensemble. In the story, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) with tousled red hair has been dancing with demure Mary (Ana Javakishvili) since they were children. In the rehearsal room, they strut in movements precise and elegant, but the autocratic dance coach barks that they should stiffen up – that there’s no sex in Georgian dancing. Coach may think so, but nobody in the audience will. The dancing looks like it’s all sex, in its disciplined, exacting, stylized way. And when super talented, good-looking bad boy Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) shows up, you know it’s all about sex, among a flock of graceful, gorgeous young dancers.
I suspect there’s a ton of Georgian cultural context that I don’t get in And Then We Danced. I don’t know what the different dances or the specific dance moves may mean, and I have no idea how strict the bonds of tradition may be. Does traditional Georgian dance allow for interpretation or improvisation? The movie is certainly about observing tradition, and the sometimes-oppressive rigor of doing the dance moves perfectly.
But part of sticking to tradition is breaking the rules, and maybe the joy of confounding harsh disciplinarians like this particular dancing master. Americans love the sight of rigid tradition upended, but in the world of Georgian traditional dancers, I have no idea.
But rule-breaking does come into And Then We Danced. You get an early hint when Merab tells Irakli that he and Mary are sort-of a couple. It’s the kind of comment that jumps right off the screen and raises your eyebrows. And, sure enough, after a while the two boys aren’t competing for Mary as you’d thought; they’re thinking about each other.
As a story of love and disappointment, And Then We Danced is nothing special. But what is special in the picture is how fully it adores the physical. Both the dancing and the dancers are magically beautiful. In the first shot of Merab, he’s in his erect dance posture, with his hands on his hips, his eyes intense and his hair perfectly rumpled. He’s dancing with Mary, but only later might you realize that she’s less in the camera’s eye than Merab – and of course the film is going to be more about male bodies than female.
But the overall impact is still a celebration of all things physical. The movie looks at hands and feet; it admires the jumps and landings in the dances. When Merab and Irakli have their moment and they take off their shirts, you might think the movie cares less about love or sex and much more simply about the beauty of their bodies.
The idea of a movie about dance from the country of Georgia is not an automatic big seller in this country – it may not even be a hit in Georgia. But And Then We Danced is a great watch. You can feel the lively melding of the East and the West in the rhythms of the music, the formalities of the dances. There’s the lovely sound of the Georgian language. Shots of the city of Tbilisi look like western cities, but inside the dancing, the world of And Then We Danced feels separate from the world we mostly experience, just a bit exotic – and you feel transported to somewhere else for a couple of hours.