Traditional Kinetics, Queer Potential: Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced
This past October, I was heading home from Scandinavia House after a screening of Levan Akin’s latest film And Then We Danced (2019) when I found myself thinking about the hashtag #boysdancetoo. Male dancers have been having a moment, and the uproar against Good Morning America host Lara Spencer for mocking Prince George’s studies of ballet is just fading from memory. The desire to defend dancing boys felt not only slightly misguided (bullying aside, cisgender men in the field are afforded considerable privilege), but also revealing of a deeper anxiety about dance not being taken seriously by the dominant culture. In Georgia, the former Soviet republic where And Then We Danced takes place, dance is taken extremely seriously, and the traditional dances of the culture are inextricable from its identity. The dances illustrate ancient rituals of courtship, marriage, and war, and it’s common for Georgian children of all genders to train in the form. Georgian dance is also known for being extremely gendered, with strict expectations placed on male and female practitioners.
The film takes place in Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi and follows a young male dancer named Merab as he balances training for an upcoming audition with his burgeoning desire for another male dancer. Dance is a family affair for Merab: both his parents danced and his brother attends the same dance school. Akin, a Swedish-born director with Georgian heritage, started the project after witnessing violent Orthodox Church-endorsed protests enacted against a Tbilisi pride parade in 2013. The film opened there on November 9th and, despite selling out all 5,000 tickets within minutes, met with similarly bombastic (and violent) reactions encouraged by the Church and Georgian nationalist groups. Outside of Georgia, the film has largely been well-received: after its initial screening in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes it was selected as the Swedish entry for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. Outward hostility toward queer people is commonplace in Georgia despite the country’s legal protections for LGBTQ folks; Akin met with considerable backlash in the production process with several of the main Georgian dance ensembles refusing to support the making of a film with a gay storyline. Much of the shoot was done in secret, and the choreographer of the film has chosen to remain anonymous.
The lexicon of traditional Georgian dances provides a useful vehicle for Akin to move his plot along and reveal the emotional journey of his characters. In the opening scene, Merab, played by Georgian contemporary dancer and first-time actor Levan Gelbakhiani, performs a duet with his long-term dancing partner, Mary. We see his coy, playful approach to the dance as he and Mary orbit one another in an illustration of courtship. The rehearsal director pauses the rehearsal to critique him: “You should be like a nail. You’re too soft. You need to be like a monument.” Mary doesn’t get off easily either: he insists that she keep her eyes downcast, reminding her that the movement is meant to convey innocence and purity. And one final reminder: “there is no sex in Georgian dance.”
Or is there? Just then a new male dancer named Irakli arrives on the scene, and his rebellious charm quickly grabs Merab’s attention, as does his talent: Irakli is a gifted dancer who is also planning to audition for the coveted spot in the main touring ensemble. Irakli’s dancing is strong and sharp in contrast to Merab’s lithe fluidity, and the rehearsal director praises him, switching Merab out for Irakli in the duet with Mary. Competition aside, the two grow closer, and it’s an endearing (and at times predictable) portrayal of emergent desire. Their courtship materializes in familiar ways: a look between the boys lasts too long, a hand lingers on a thigh while demonstrating a difficult sequence in rehearsal. Their relationship develops most compellingly when they dance. When they’re paired together to perform a duet, they smile throughout, beaming as they perform what becomes a kind of pas de deux of boyish sparring. One sequence in which their hands coquettishly frame their faces, switching from cheek to cheek with a flip of the wrist, feels quietly queer and subversive; according to Akin, the dance has its roots in a Georgian gay subculture that has been erased over time.
We often experience the arc of the film through Merab’s body, the camera closely tracking his movements in the studio and around the city as he runs to catch a bus or rushes around his restaurant job carrying plates of food. Akin spent the early part of production following Gelbakhiani (who he found on Instagram) around Tbilisi, and this closeness between director and actor is palpable in Gelbakhiani’s comfort in front of the camera. When Merab and his friends (Irakli included) travel to Mary’s father’s sprawling countryside home for a weekend of partying, the frame widens, overflowing with travel-special style shots of mountains, tablets of food, and pitchers of orange wine. The countryside provides the setting for the boys’ first tryst, and it’s grasping, furtive, and relatable. The choice to place first-time sex within such an idyllic landscape calls up the expected comparisons to 2017’s Italian-villa fantasy Call Me By Your Name—as does the lanky charm shared by Gelbakhiani and Timothée Chalamet. The privilege enjoyed by the characters (and highly experienced actors) in that film, however, can’t compare with the very real political stakes raised by this one.
As Merab’s infatuation with Irakli grows, his body seems hungry for a wider range of sensual experience, wider than Georgian dance (and maybe Georgia itself) can provide. In one memorable scene, he drunkenly performs an impromptu private dance for Irakli to Robyn’s ‘Honey,’ cigarette in hand, wearing only boxer shorts and a giant fur hat. When Irakli won’t return his calls he finds solace in a gay club, thrashing wildly to house music with his new queer friends. Back in dance class, his teachers further criticize his dancing (too soft), and his woes are exacerbated by an ankle injury (an unnecessary dance-movie trope—he has enough stacked against him already). Stories about a former ensemble dancer, beaten up by company members for being gay, add to his unease. What’s a boy like Merab to do? In a surprisingly tender scene, his lay-about, usually drunk brother, bruised from defending himself against a group of bullies who heard his brother was gay, encourages him to get out of Georgia and pursue a future where his career desires and sexuality may be able to coexist.
In the final scene, Merab pushes through his injury to deliver a wildly inventive audition solo, his obvious deviations from traditional steps propelling the company director to walk out halfway through after claiming Merab is “making fun of Georgian dance.” Merab’s movement is slinky, sexy, and totally novel: Gelbakhiani developed the solo by splicing traditional Georgian steps with his own choreography. It’s as if Merab (and the real-life dancer/choreographer/actor portraying him) is dancing right through the moment of discovery.
Narrative tropes aside, And Then We Danced touched me on many levels: as a film lover, as a gay man craving narratives that reflect a complexity in gay experience, and as a contemporary dancer who trained for years as a child in a highly gendered and culturally-specific dance form (Irish dance). Experimentation with the tools of tradition is a valuable thing: I remember the first time I rearranged my Irish dance steps into a new sequence. I suppose that was my first dance.