Merab has been dancing since he could walk and has had the same dance partner, Mary, since he was 10. They are “more or less” going out. We first meet them dressed in black body stockings in the dance school as a percussionist and accordionist beat out Georgian folk tunes. An instructor barks “There is no sex in Georgian dance. There is no Georgian Lambada”.
Enter Irakli, a replacement dancer, though he’s not sure who he’s supposed to be replacing. He wears an earring which makes him immediately louche in the eyes of the instructor. When the lads in the changing rooms talk about visiting a brothel, he declines, claiming a girlfriend “back home”. The lads see that as being immediate proof of his homosexuality.
Someone from the big ballet arrives with an announcement. There is an opening for one male dancer to join the professional ballet troupe. We find out why from the gossip in the women’s changing rooms. On a tour, one of the leading dancers was caught sleeping with someone. Even worse, it was a man. Worse still, an Armenian. He’s apparently now been packed off by his family to a monastery.
Merab shares a room with his layabout brother, who is also notionally at the dance school when he can get around to attending lessons. They share the room almost Cox and Box-like with Merab often seeing his brother returning from a long night out as he’s headed off to the academy. They live with their mother and grandmother. Their father – once a dancer who played the London Palladium – has split with their mother and now runs a stall in town.
There is going to be a dance off to decide who gets to join the big ballet, and Merab and Irakli start training together, much to the delight of their instructor who says that Merab can learn from dancing with someone who’s better than him. Its hard to tell whether the instructor doesn’t really rate Merab – Merab is regularly told to redo his pieces – or whether he’s playing the “JK Simmons in Whiplash” role of encouraging him by being mean.
The growing attraction that Merab feels for Irakli is show gradually, first by Merab just looking so much happier in the other man’s presence. This is underpinned by Ana Javakishvili doing the best she can in an underwritten role as Mary, who looks on supportively but helplessly as the boy she grew up with starts to show more love for his new friend than he ever showed to her.
Everything looks to be headed for a dramatic conclusion as surely either Merab or Irakli is going to win the dance off and leave the other behind. Sure, in theory 3 other dancers are in the competition as well, but the rules of dramatic structure say that they don’t have a hope of winning. It is here that the film makes what I think is its only faltering step. This cannot be explained without resorting to plot spoilers, so if you don’t want to know, please skip the next paragraph.
And the plot spoiler is that the plot carries on pretty much as you’d expected. Irakli disappears for reasons that will be explained later, which causes Merab to go on a bender and twist his ankle, leading you to think that the ending that the film has been building up to all this time just won’t happen. In the end, Merab does make the final audition with his foot bandaged up, but wouldn’t it have been brilliant if we spent half the film anticipating a big competition that never happens?
Nonetheless the film ends defiantly, as befits its unapologetic discussion of sexuality, nationality and class. I came to see this knowing nothing except that it was playing outdoors and I hadn’t seen it already, and God knows that’s reason enough to see a film nowadays. Yet for all its occasional stumbles, it impressed way more than I had any right to expect.