Set in the world of Georgian folk dancing, with its sharp, deliberate choreography and percussion-driven rhythms, And Then We Danced is the story of Mareb (Levan Gelbakhiani), a promising young performer determined to join the national troupe if he can navigate family drama, personal injury and more along the way. Written and directed by Levan Akin, Mareb’s journey through the demands of his chosen art, a family coming apart and the seams and an unexpected—and incredibly taboo—romance is vibrant, emotionally rich and beautifully wrought.
Under the training of a no-nonsense dance instructor who expects perfection in every movement, Mareb and his fellow dancers—including his older brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli), his dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) and newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili)—push themselves to physical and mental limits in order to deliver passionate, dynamic performances steeped in tradition. In the locker rooms after another grueling rehearsal, the boys joke and rough-house with each other while the girls gossip about Zaza, a former dancer who was run out of town when he was caught having sex with another man. Despite a government that ensures equal human rights to all, homophobia runs rampant in Tbilisi, and it remains a highly dangerous lifestyle about which to be public.
Which makes the romance that develops between Mareb and Irakli all the more thrilling, for them and us (at least at its outset). Their first encounter is rushed, nearly silent and pretty damn hot; they’ve snuck away from their group of friends and fall into each other in a way that is instinctive and ardent, even if it takes them both a bit by surprise. Mareb falls fast, high on the buzz of a youthful infatuation he can’t tell anyone about. But things, as they always are, are complicated—and not just by a society that won’t accept them. Mareb holds down a job waiting tables between rehearsals; since David can’t be bothered to be responsible, what little Mareb earns goes back to his mother and grandmother at home. When David gets a fellow dancer pregnant, a rushed wedding reminds us what a conservative culture contemporary Georgia really is. And on top of it all, Irakli disappears without so much as a text message telling Mareb where he’s gone, leaving the young dancer to wallow and wonder what’s become of this new and deep connection.
And Then We Danced is a film torn between two worlds, between the new and the old, the traditional and the emerging. The country’s deep traditions of folk dancing and singing are the cultural touchstones Akin uses to center themes of self-discovery, acceptance and potential. In a touching moment, Mareb and Mary visit his estranged father at the bazaar where he works; he tells them about his his own days as a dancer and Mareb is surprised to learn that his grandmother performed abroad with the national troupe. Even as his father denounces the tradition and its lack of a future, it’s a reminder of just how deep Mareb’s ties are to the art form. Meanwhile, a key juxtaposition of traditional folk music and instantly recognizable pop anthems by Robyn, ABBA and others creates a pulsing energy that drives home the diversity of Mareb’s passions.
Gelbakhiani’s performance (he’s in essentially every scene) is captivating, creating a vividly realized character who navigates a tumultuous phase of his young life with all the wonder, fear and uncertainty one would expect. From quiet moments waiting to hear from Irakli to a raucous night out clubbing with a new crew of queer friends, Gelbakhiani’s range is exceptional. Rivaling him for screentime is the dancing itself; captured as it is in an enclosed rehearsal studio where its true impact gets a bit lost, it’s nevertheless rousing every time.
As Mareb comes to accept the truth of both who he is (and the state of his relationship with Irakli), And Then We Dance establishes itself as a thoughtful, modern exploration of identity—the one we’re born into, and the one we’re born to become.