Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) has been tirelessly training with his dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), since they were ten years old to earn a spot with the prestigious National Georgian Ensemble. His plan is thrown off track when a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), arrives, sparking fierce competition and intense feelings in “And Then We Danced.”
I realize that we here in the US have only recently become aware of the human rights of the LGBTQ community and acknowledge those social rights – though many would say it is not nearly enough, yet. The professional dance community here, on the other hand, has embraced gay rights and tolerance much longer ago. As such, I was not prepared for “And Then We Danced” and its look into that society that oppresses that community.
The film focuses on the dancers vying to audition for the National Ensemble, a bastion of conservatism and traditional Georgian folk dance. But, those dancers who identify with the LGBTQ movement in that country must suppress that important part of their personal lives or suffer ostracism and, even, imprisonment. The filmmaker use the story, off screen, of the life of a disgraced dancer, named Zaza, who, because of being gay, was left to a life of imprisonment and male prostitution.
The story, written and directed by Swedish-born Levan Akin, is a fascinating character study of a young dancer whose laser focused life and ambition has been on earning a top position on the National Ensemble. Merab is the presumed lead of those selected to audition for the ensemble until, that is, the talented and rebellious Irakli arrives. Both young men are convinced that each is the best candidate and they become rivals, friends and something more.
Levan Gelbakhiani gives an intense performance, both physically, through his precise and elegant dance, and emotionally as his feelings grow for Irakli as their competition intensifies. Bachi Valishvili, as the opponent and romantic foil, gives a more at-arms-length performance as the object of Merab’s attentions.
As I watched “And Then We Danced,” I was struck by how far we have come in this country about LBGTQ since the days of William Friedkin’s “The Boys in the Band (1970),” Hopefully, the rest of the world will come around to more enlightened thinking. I give it a B+.
Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) has been at dance class with the objective of getting into the National Georgian Ensemble ‘since he could walk.’ He has been practicing the Adjarian Duet with Mary (Ana Javakishvili) for years when his instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) declares ‘There is no sex in Georgian dance.’ But when brazen newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) comes in sporting an earring and serious talent, Merab’s world is turned upside down in “And Then We Danced.”
After witnessing some brave souls attempting to mount a Gay Pride parade in Tbilisi in 2013 get attacked by a mob of thousands, writer/director Levan Akin, a first generation Swede of Georgian descent, decided on his next project. Shot in Tbilisi (with no help from officials who maintain there are no homosexuals in Georgian dance), this is a coming of age film that both celebrates a unique culture and criticizes its human rights abuses. Both Gelbakhiani and Valishvili impress in their first acting roles while their dancing might just sweep you away.
Georgian conservatism is signposted not only by Aleko’s early dubious comment but by dancers’ gossip about Zaza, a dancer thrown out when he was discovered having sex with another man (a later update paints an even sadder fate against the hypocrisy of the Church which condemns him). Yet while Merab tries in every way to do the ‘right’ thing, especially as contrasted against his troublesome brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli), Gelbakhiani subtly signals his attraction to Irakli from the get go even as Merab publicly acknowledges Mary as his girlfriend.
There is competition between the two, Aleko approving of Merab’s practicing with the ‘better’ dancer, even pairing them up on a highly spirited duet which catches the attention of Beso (Marlen Egutia), marking them both for highly sought after auditions. A dancing celebration ensues on the street, Merab turning down Mary’s offer of a condom, deeming the outdoors not special. Then her birthday party at her wealthy father’s house gives Merab and Irakli the space, outdoors, to consummate their growing attraction.
Gelbakhiani fully inhabits a character with a life that extends to his job as a waiter, his life with mother and grandmother and the screw-up brother who loses him his job. After Merab’s lovemaking with Irakli, we can see the glow of love on his face, his dejection when deserted just as intense, his abandon escaping into Tbilisi’s underground gay life. His final, rebellious dance for Aleko and Beso is a complete show stopper. Valishvili sports the amused nonchalance of the coolest cat in the room despite Irakli’s outsider status, the right choice for his character’s arc. Tsereteli goes to some different places, the taunting younger brother surprising in a late scene with caring advice for his embattled brother.
Cinematographer Lisabi Fridell and production designer Teo Baramidze utilize the beautiful old world buildings of Tbilisi and streets which always seem cast in autumnal light as a magical setting, albeit one denied the truth of its protagonist. In one amazing sequence, the camera follows Merab through room after room of David’s wedding reception toward his heartbreak before doubling back against the irony of dancing guests. In addition to Georgia’s dance, Akin also highlights its traditional polyphonic singing, Mary’s male relatives performing ‘Tsintskaro,’ a song heard in Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu” and featured on Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ album. Its food – bread, dumplings and bounteous produce – is also prevalent.
“And Then We Danced” is a film that plunges us into another culture, exposing the ugliness beneath the traditional beauty of its surface. Akin exhibits a knack for extracting good performances from nonprofessionals as he tells his familiar story in unfamiliar territory.
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