And Then We Danced (2019)

A deeply physical coming-of-age gay romance in the traditional dance world, And Then We Danced directed by Levan Akin is an uplifting and inspiring feature about the path to queer liberation.

Pas de Deux

by Olivia Neilson

And Then We Danced

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The pounding of drums, an athletic young dancer pushing his body to the limit, longing gazes and the stirring of first desire make up this deeply physical and ultimately heart-warming coming-of-age gay romance set within the intense and conservative world of the National Georgian Ensemble.

The talented young Georgian dancer Levan Gelbakhiani is dazzling as the lead character Merab. Scouted on Instagram, this is Gelbakhiani’s first acting role and he is instantly one to watch. In fact, he has just won the European Shooting Stars Award at this year’s Berlinale. Gelbakhiani elegantly and effortlessly plays a version of himself in this quasi-documentary-style feature about a young dancer coming to terms with his sexual identity in the confines of the country’s traditional Orthodox dance troupe.

Set in current-day Tbilisi, the camera loyally follows Merab around his day to day existence – the routine early starts as he is jolted awake by a familiar iPhone alarm, battling to get into the bathroom, a day of training, an evening of smoking and drinking with his friends or waitering in his local restaurant – living a life like most teenagers, but instead of school he trains.

But no matter how hard Merab trains, no matter how talented he is, his ‘softness’ sticks out, in the shape of his hands, in the way he lands, in the arch of his neck, all of which interrupt the stiff, hard-as-nails qualities that the National Georgian Ensemble expect. He is told over and over to start again, his teacher subtly shaking his head, which halts the intense beat of the accompanying drums.

Recognising Merab’s talent, his teacher (Kakha Gogidze) is determined to train him out of this softness, to make him the macho Georgian dancer he can be, to almost convert his sexuality through dance. Headstrong and ambitious, Merab persists with certain moves over and over again, determined to get it right, but ultimately determined never to get it in line with Georgian Orthodox definitions of masculinity. 

When uber-confident and self-assured Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) joins the group, Merab’s position as a leading dancer becomes even more under threat, but there is something else, something deeper which unsettles Merab along with Irakli’s arrival. Something he always knew was there, but had never quite given form or tangibility.

During the casting process, the actors who play Irakli and Merab had instant chemistry, and this unique chemistry is perfectly captured onscreen with subtle gazes, smiles and skin-on-skin grazes. Their relationship has all of the Call Me By Your Name awe, lust and yearning that Elio feels for Oliver, but only a fraction of the traumatic heartbreak. The film is less about the all-consuming travesty of a first love that goes wrong, and more about the process of becoming, of sexual awakening and the journey towards liberating self-expression. 

Swedish director of Georgian descent Levan Akin was shocked when he witnessed a homophobic mob of thousands attack a gay pride parade in Tbilisi. Thanks to the support of the Swedish Film Institute, Akin was able to make Georgia’s first-ever film about gay love, which entered into official competition at Cannes and was Sweden’s Oscar entry in 2020. Whilst the film has helped start a conversation around gay rights in Georgia, its premiere in the country sparked violent protests outside the cinema, with Orthodox Christians brandishing their crosses and far right groups burning LGBT flags. Although homosexuality is decriminalised in the country, homophobia is widespread, and the idea of a film about a gay romance set within a Georgian dance group sparked double the outrage – not only is this a Georgian gay romance, it is happening at the heart of tradition and cultural heritage. But director Levan Akin is careful never to relinquish national identity in his pursuit of onscreen LGBT representation, instead he makes sure queerness and pride for Georgian heritage go hand in hand. 

In an uplifting closing scene, Merab auditions for the professional role that he has been training for. After the head judge swiftly walks out, as Merab’s hands are “making a mockery” of Georgian dance, Merab continues in what becomes a mixture of traditional Georgian moves and interpretive dance, which call to mind “the bad boy of ballet” Sergei Polunin’s routine from the iconic music video for Hozier’s track ‘Take Me To Church’. His teacher, who represents the older generation’s fixed Orthodox views on gender and dance, stays and watches, his presence a powerful statement about how tradition and modernity can coexist together.

And Then We Danced is a film which makes a universal statement about how you can be at once proud of your cultural heritage and proud to be gay. Unlike many gay films that dwell hard on pain, violence and the struggle of coming out in a conservative society, (think the original trans-trauma movie Boys Don’t Cry, and more recently A Fantastic Woman), And Then We Danced manages to highlight the complications of coming out without falling for the ‘trauma porn’ trope in LGBTQ+ films. Instead it creates an ultimately uplifting and inspiring feature about the path to queer liberation.

And Then We Danced premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and is released on 13 March 2020 in the UK.

It is available on demand now on:
Curzon Home Cinema
https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/film/watch-and-then-we-danced-online
Vimeo on Demand:
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/andthenwedanced

BFI Player will go live next week and additional digital sites will be added in the coming weeks.