Dancing in the Dark Ages

Drama, not rated, 113 minutes, in Georgian with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles

“Georgian dancing is the spirit of our nation,” the old dancing master instructs a class of aspiring folk dancers. That spirit is tough and muscular on the male side, demure and virginal on the distaff. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and his dance partner and girlfriend Mary (Ana Javakishvili) come in for their share of criticism; he for showing a soft side and she for being too coquettish. “There is no sex,” their instructor (Kakha Gogidze) thunders, “in Georgian dance!”

The kids all work their tails off, and their goal is clear-cut: to land a spot in the ensemble of the national folk dance company, and get a ticket out of Georgia. Mary smokes English cigarettes (the dancers smoke like chimneys), and they all dream of performing on the great stages of Europe.

Merab’s parents, now separated, were dancers who almost made it. His grandmother once danced at Milan’s La Scala. Merab is pushing himself hard, arriving early at the rehearsal hall to put in extra time and earn a coveted audition spot and working nights as a waiter to help support his impoverished family.

But his focus changes with the arrival in class of a dark, handsome stranger, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Irakli soon challenges Merab for plum roles in the class repertoire. But it is in their leisure time, when the two young men find themselves alone in a dark garden at a party, that Merab’s world explodes in a passionately erotic encounter that begins as horseplay and evolves into something else.

We know homosexuality is verboten in the Georgian dance world and discovery can end a chance at a career. Locker room gossip has already described the cautionary tale of Zaza, a young man expelled from the company for being caught in a same-sex embrace, and sent to a monastery for rehab (we later learn he has fled after being molested by his counselor).

Writer-director Levan Akin is Swedish, of Georgian heritage; the film is set in Tbilisi, though it was Sweden’s candidate for the Oscars. It pits Merab’s emerging awareness of his homosexuality and the larger picture of his individuality against the oppressive weight of Georgian tradition and role expectations. Akin doesn’t discover many original wrinkles in this coming out story, but it’s the powerful cultural context, and some terrific dancing and acting by Gelbakhiani, that earn this movie its dancing shoes. 

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