With arms stretched and firm steps, majestic and yet light on their feet, the men in Georgian dance carry the weight of the country’s heritage on their shoulders, as well as its rigid ideals of masculinity. For Swedish-born auteur Levan Akin, that paragon of tradition was the perfect stage for a cinematic act of kinetic defiance against homophobia with his Cannes debut “And Then We Danced.”

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 “There’s no sex in Georgian dance,” the director of the Georgian National Ensemble reprimands his pupils, only virginal purity for women and immovable virility for the men are permitted. Dedicated dancer from a lineage of achieved performers Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) flourishes even within this restrictive environment, but hard-earned precision doesn’t appease his superiors.  

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No one dares say it, but Merab’s natural poise and his hand gestures are seen as too feminine in comparison to that of his brutish brother—also a dancer. Akin deals in conscientious subtext throughout, not only in regards to his protagonist’s sexual orientation, but also the harsh economic circumstances that entice young people to fiercely fight for a place in the leading ensemble and even Georgia’s animosity with Caucasus neighbor Armenia. 

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Talented out-of-towner Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a charming man’s man, arrives to intensify the competition in the group, and simultaneously sparks a choreography of telling looks and hidden grins with Merab. The two are bound for a head-on romantic collision, one so illicit in this society that requires Akin to handle it with immense tension. Each kiss is a perilous risk, and the dangers are self-evident. If they get caught, consequences could be fatal.

Not significantly dissimilar in general plot to other LGBTQ stories in places where love between two men is the ultimate taboo, which regrettably remains too many across the world, the enchantment of Akin’s take comes from how he harnesses the cultural richness of his parents’ homeland with respect for its significance, while questioning its foundational role in the oppression of those who exist outside the heterosexual binary. “And Then With Danced” is both a tribute and a reckoning. 

Just as ambiguous as Merab’s self-assessment, especially in hopes of not hurting his sort-of girlfriend Mary (Ana Javakishvili), the film’s aesthetic and sonic identity also fluctuates from the solemn and the carefree. Ceremonious chants give way to Swedish pop star Robyn‘s luscious song “Honey,” which tastes of Western openness, in a continuous dialogue between conservative ideologies and the slight possibility of acceptance. 

Both set in Tbilisi a few decades apart, Akin’s film makes for a potent double feature with Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ “In Bloom,” a look at the practice of arranged marriages from the point of view of two teen girls that also features dance substantially. 

In this case, Akin being foreign-born with Georgian roots and having access to Swedish funds was likely the only way a project of this nature, touching on a hot button issue for the local government, could come to pass. An outsider with a critical eye, he benefited from having strong enough ties to create a topical piece that’s not appropriated but authentic. 

Wielding the human body as a captivating artistic tool, Akin permeates his shots with the dynamic force of synchronized rhythm shared by Merab and Irakli or the freeform energy of a club where gays and transgender individuals let loose with total abandon. Dance flows through every frame like a jolt of electricity. Merab dances, for a living and catharsis, it’s a mode of expression inedible to his people and even more to himself. 

Buoyant first-time actor, Levan Gelbakhiani goes from unknown to galvanizing star in a unique role. His presence is one of stunning physicality, proving there’s strength in what others see as a weakness in his character. A muted sensuality in Gelbakhiani’s interactions with Bachi Valishvili make for swoon-worthy effervescence, but inevitably a prelude to heartbreak. Both newcomers excel as professional dancers on screen, but transcend for the doomed love story they construct in looks and whispers. 

Agile like the men and women it immortalizes, the camera, in the skilled hands of cinematographer Lisabi Fridell, waltzes around them, rendering the vibrancy of their moves into entrancing sequences. Fridell’s manipulation of light, from natural in most shots to an amber drenched night of joyful seduction, completes a radiant visual terrain. A wedding scene executed in a single take sees the camera traverse through multiple spaces taking in the intricately blocked moment that concludes in Merab’s emotional release. 

In the wake of liberating disillusionment, at last, Merab dances unconcerned of where his hands are placed. The sound of the drum is no longer guiding him but following his beat. There’s gorgeous violence in his protest, dangerous but still gracious, furious but now free. Each movement lands like a punch on the face of institutionalized hatred. In the words of Robyn’s emblematic track, he’ll keep, despite ensured uncertainty about the future, dancing on his own. [A-]