“It is not the lambada,” a grim-faced dance teacher reminds his students in Levan Akin’s And then we danced, directing his comments primarily at Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), whose movements have leaned too much towards the feminine for his liking. In the traditional Georgian dance, he tells her, “You should be like a nail,” and his longtime partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), must have a look that suggests virginal innocence. But Merab’s hips don’t lie, nor do his hands, which float and float over his body, and the rest of the film is about who can dictate how he expresses himself.

Although chosen as Sweden’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar – it didn’t end up getting a nomination – And then we danced was an independent act of subterfuge for its director, whose parents emigrated from Georgia and who spent summers there as a child. The air of violent homophobia surrounding Akin’s story of two male dancers was validated by both the making of the film, which was produced on the fly in Tbilisi with quite a bit of backing and a reluctant lead. , and its screenings in Tbilisi and Batumi, which were met with nasty ultra-nationalist and pro-Russian protests. The stakes of this film are very real.

However, forbidden dances are not limited to the lambada either. It’s a long-standing convention of dance movies to erect class or race barriers so romantic partners can tango, and Akin isn’t keen enough to challenge those conventions. There’s a big climactic audition. There’s a gallery of sinister no-fun-niks. There are stolen kisses (and more) just out of sight for people who would be exasperated. Akin’s formal choreography doesn’t push the envelope like his hero’s dance choreography, and the drama sags from lack of inspiration and daring. For such a controversial film, it should seem more dangerous than it is.

Akin does a good job of detailing Merab’s life on the sidelines, which is completely dark before risking everything for love. Merab isn’t making any money as a dancer yet, so he struggles to make ends meet as a waiter and moves in with his family in their seedy, noisy, and overcrowded apartment. Her now-estranged mother and father were once dancers themselves, but neither was able to make a living from it and both are filled with regret. When a place becomes available in the National Georgian Ensemble, a well-paid and prestigious touring company, Merab and the other men of her class go after her. This includes a mysterious new student, Irakli (Bashi Valishvili), who shocks the instructor by showing up with an earring and begins throwing suggestive glances in Merab’s direction.

Once Merab and Irakli start rehearsing together in the morning, an intense romantic relationship develops between them, despite news that the dancer they are trying to replace has been fired for having sex with another man. The two carve out a bit of happiness for each other, which seems obvious even when they’re not in the same room: Merab can’t help but smile, and he usually has nothing to smile about. But with the risks they take, as well as their rivalry for an open slot, threatens their budding relationship.

Gelbakhiani and Valishvili have great chemistry on and off the floor, but And then we danced is more convincing when we can hear their bodies talking. Akin has a great sense of the subtle differences between traditional Georgian dancing and the flourishes that Merab and Irakli try to bring to it, and he’s even better when they’re in more private spaces, growling to songs like “Take a Chance on Me” by Abba” and “Darling” by Robyn. While these men yearn for liberation through dance, they do not see this impulse as inconsistent with tradition, even when chastised for not acting more like monuments to masculinity.

Based on its reception in Georgia, And then we danced has a good sense of the challenges facing the LGBTQ community and seems to tread carefully because of them, never provoking more than strictly necessary. Yet he still follows a winning formula, blessed with an underlying optimism that change is possible if the right people keep pushing. Dance and culture must evolve together, Akin implies, or risk falling into a sinister obsolescence.

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