Sometimes it’s important to view a film through the lens of its country of origin. What may seem standard for us may feel globally shifting for others. I came to Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced with this in mind, knowing full well that the LGBTQ+ communities in Tbilisi, Georgia do not enjoy the same rights or even recognition as their more westernized counterparts. The story of a young male dancer navigating his burgeoning gayness in a hyper-masculine, homophobic culture may seem quaint to others, but by immersing myself in his existing circumstances, I walked away mostly charmed and enlightened despite an often formulaic approach.
Akin, a Swedish citizen of Georgian descent, tells the story of Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a trainee member of a traditional Georgian dance troupe, who at the outset gets called out by his macho, conversative coach Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) for dancing too softly. Telling everyone that there is no sex in Georgian dancing, his not-so-subtle warning has clearly been aimed at Merab. In fact, one of Merab’s superiors has been expelled from the professional National Georgian Ensemble for being gay. Enter the charming, handsome Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a highly skilled dancer who arrives at the academy just in time for an important upcoming tryout for the professional company. Merab’s glances towards Irakli tell us everything we need to know despite Merab having a girlfriend, a fellow dancer named Mary (a sly, subtle performance from Ana Javakishvili). Irakli takes Merab under his wing as they rehearse for their auditions together. Of course they fall in love, yet society rears its ugly head by putting countless obstacles in their paths. Still there’s no stopping the attractions at play. Between the recent Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and this, they could launch a thousand college theses on same sex gazes.
In a strange way, the film plays like a male Flashdance. Take away the welding helmet and the buckets of water at the strip bar, and you have the story of a working class person who navigates romance on the way to a big, climactic audition scene. They both feel slightly undercooked as well, but at least this film has a society to blame for people not getting to live their authentic lives. It’s very easy as a Westerner to yell back at the screen, “Why don’t you just kiss him?”, but the lives of queer people in so many parts of the world don’t allow for it.
Gelbakhiani gives such a beautifully sensitive performance as a man who excels at making Mary think there’s something there between them while beelining towards the real truth behind his affections. With very little dialogue about this dichotomy, Gelbakhiani almost entirely conveys his thoughts through his expressive eyes. Valishviki uses his smile and good looks to give a more traditional leading man performance. This makes his journey feel quite touching as he’s faced with a decision to either please society or himself. I also really liked the actors who played Merab’s parents and grandmother, all of whom were dancers, and feel very protective over Merab and his less dedicated, drug-dealing brother David (a vivid Giorgi Tsereteli), who barely makes an effort at the dance academy.
Through David, the coach, and the menacing owner of the troupe, we experience the ultra-macho side of Georgian life. Dance, to them, feels like a way to glorify the patriarchy, giving permission for men to treat women, as well as anyone who threatens their worldview, terribly. Luckily, the film takes us on a brief interlude into the underground gay world of Tbilisi, giving us a shred of hope that there’s a life beyond the norms. Akin, however, stays true to the culture he depicts, eschewing fantasy for what seems like a tiny baby step at the very end. Consider it Stonewall, Georgian style.
Cinematographer Lisabi Fridell and production designer Tee Baramidze capture the post-Soviet look of the drab interiors and the amber hues emanating from the street lights. It works well to portray Merab’s surroundings as ones he should attempt to escape. This contrasts beautifully with a key sequence in which he and his friends take a trip to a country villa. Everything seems more possible here than in their oppressive urban prison.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “coming out” stories just aren’t interesting anymore, but without films like And Then We Danced, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it may seem for those who live in much less forgiving cultures. At its Tbilisi premiere, in fact, anti-gay protesters tried to shut it down. Luckily, they screened it anyhow. I consider that an incredible accomplishment for a film many would say has its shares of clichés. For that, and for the wonderful performances and the authentic design and filmmaking, I’m very happy it has found its place in the world.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. And Then We Danced gets a 50 out of 50. It goes further in its depiction of sex and sexuality than I had expected, but still feels chaste by westernized conventions.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
And Then We Danced is currently in select US cities and opens in the UK and Ireland March 13th 2020.