Review: ‘And Then We Danced,’ starring Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili

February 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

And Then We Danced
Bachi Valishvili and Levan Gelbakhiani in “And Then We Danced” (Photo by Lisabi Fridell/Music Box Films)

“And Then We Danced”

Directed by Levan Akin

Georgian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the modern-day Eastern European republic of Georgia, the coming-of-age drama “And Then We Danced” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle and lower classes of a country which places significant cultural importance on traditional Georgian dance.

Culture Clash: Two young male dancers who fall in love with each other face the pressures and obstacles of a society that condemns homosexuality.

Culture Audience: “And Then We Danced” will appeal primarily to people who like European arthouse cinema, as well as to viewers who want to see LGBTQ stories told realistically on screen.

Bachi Valishvili, Levan Gelbakhiani and Ana Javakishvili in “And Then We Danced” (Photo by Anka Gujabidze/Music Box Films)

You might have heard that the dramatic film “And Then We Danced” sparked protests and some violence when it opened to sold-out screenings in the Eastern European republic of Georgia in November 2019. What was the reason for this outrage? Does the movie show excessive violence? Does it have any hate-filled political messages? No. The controversy was because the movie is about two men who fall in love with each other after they meet in their training to become professionals in the world of traditional Georgian dance—a profession that preaches that there’s no place for homosexuality and male dancers should very masculine.

“And Then We Danced” writer/director Levan Akin, who was born in Sweden and is of Georgian descent, says he was inspired to make the film in 2013, when he witnessed the large mob attacks on people who tried to organized the first Pride parade in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the country’s largest city. It’s in Tbilisi where most of the story takes place in “And Then We Danced.”

The cultural significance of traditional Georgian dance in Georgia and how it’s tied so closely to national pride is very similar to how Americans feel about line dancing for country music, which originated in the United States. Although a person’s sexuality is not a measure of talent in dancing, nevertheless, it’s still taboo for people in many styles of dancing to be openly non-heterosexual, depending on where the laws and customs in their society. Traditional Georgian dance is so important to the nation’s culture, kids in Georgia are taught traditional Georgian dance from an early age. As the character who plays the National Georgian Ensemble’s dance director says in the movie: “Georgian dance isn’t about achieving perfection. It’s the soul of the nation.”

However, it’s made clear in the beginning of the film that there are certain inflexible expectations on how people can express themselves in traditional Georgian dance: Male dancers have to be extra macho. Female dancers must appear to be innocent and “virginal.” Dance moves that are considered sexual are strictly forbidden. These rules are evident in the opening scene, which shows a stern, middle-age male dance instructor Aleko (playedby Kakha Gogidze) barking orders to a group of dancers practicing in a rehearsal space: “There is no sex in Georgia dance,” he bellows. “This isn’t the lambada.”

An eager young student named Merab Lominadze (played by Levan Gelbakhiani) is dancing as if it’s his life passion. And it is. He has dreams of becoming a professional dancer in the National Georgian Ensemble, even though it’s a highly competitive career with a limited span for dancers in their prime. His regular dance partner is a young woman around the same age named Miriam “Mary” Kipiani (played by Ana Javakishvili), and they have obvious dance chemistry together. Merab and Mary have been paired with each other since she was 10, and they’ve developed a long-term close friendship outside of dancing.

In the film’s first scene, a handsome new dancer interrupts the rehearsal and says he’s been sent as a replacement dancer. His name is Irakli (played by Bachi Valishvili), and he’s got a Marlon Bando-ish swagger and attitude about him that has the rest of the class intrigued. It’s clear from Merab’s reaction to Irakli that he’s infatuated at first sight.

It’s hinted throughout the story that Mary might have an unrequited crush on Merab, but he only has eyes for Irakli. Mary tries to ignore all the signs that her longtime friend isn’t heterosexual, but there are indications that she’s somewhat jealous of Merab’s subtle interest in Irakli. As Irakli gets acquainted with the rest of the dancers, Mary tries to put off Merab from getting to know Irakli better, by saying that Irakli is “weird.” But Merab is having none of that shady talk from Mary, and he watches Irakli from a distance until circumstances bring them into each other’s social circle.

Merab lives with three other people in a cramped apartment: his troubled single mother Teona (played Tamar Bukhnikashvili), who works as a housekeeper; his no-nonsense maternal grandmother Nona (played by Marika Gogichaishvili); and his older brother David (played by Giorgi Tsereteli), who’s a hard-partying rebel. David and Merab share a room together, and they’re both in the same dance class. But David is on the verge of being kicked out of the class for missing too many rehearsals. To help out with their financially strapped household income, Merab works part-time as a restaurant waiter. He hands over a lot, if not all, of his wages to his mother, who appears to have an addiction problem because she’s disheveled and often seen in some kind of intoxicated stupor.

Because gay or queer people have to keep their sexuality hidden in the world of Georgian dance, this pressure to stay in the closet is shown in two of the dance-studio scenes that are juxtaposed next to each other. In one scene that takes place in the women’s dressing room, Mary talks about a former male dance student named Zaza, whose parents sent him to a monastery to “cure” him of his homosexuality so that he could be “normal.” In the other scene, which takes place in the men’s dressing room, some of the male dancers talk about visiting a brothel, and they ask Irakli if he wants to join them on their next visit. He says no, because he says he has a girlfriend back in his hometown of Berami.

Early one morning Merab is practicing at the dance studio when the only other person there is Irakli. As they practice some dance moves together, Irakli tells Merab that his dancing technique is wrong because it could lead to a leg injury. Irakli then shows Merab the correct way to execute the dance move, and it’s the first time that the two men touch each other. You can almost see the sparks of electricity between them.

They get to talking, and Irakli asks Merab if one of the female dancers in the class has a boyfriend because he’s thinking of asking her out on a date. A visibly disappointed Merab tells Irakli that the girl likes to be taken to expensive restaurants. Irakli says that he won’t pursue her because he wouldn’t be able to afford to date her. He then opens up to Merab by telling him that he has use his money to help his ailing father, who has cancer.

Merab also has some family problems. His parents, who split up years ago, used to be well-respected dancers in Georgia’s national dance ensemble, but somewhere along the way, they gave up their successful dance careers and fell into a life of financial hardship that’s brought a certain shame to the family. For example, Merba’s mother doesn’t want people to know that a local food merchant donates leftover, throwaway food to them, and she has Merab pick up the food on his way home.

Merab’s father Ioseb (played by Aleko Begalishvili) now works at Tbilisi Eliava Bazaar, a crowded flea-market-style collective of merchants. It’s implied that he was a deadbeat dad who failed to provide enough child support payments, and there’s some lingering tension in the family because they’ve fallen on hard times. Ioseb discourages Merab from following his dreams of being a professional dancer. As he tells his son: “There’s no future in Georgian dance. Being a dancer is a dog’s life.” Despite what his father says, Merab remains undeterred.

Irakli and Merab continue to meet up for early-morning rehearsals before the other dancers arrive. Word gets back to the dance instructor Aleko about this hard-working duo, so he tests Irakli and Merab’s dance chemistry together in a male duet. Not surprisingly, Merab and Irakli are terrific dance partners, which intensifies their growing attraction to one another. Although Irakli has made it clear that he’s attracted to women, Merab is starting to develop romantic feelings for him. Could Irakli be attracted to men too, and will Merab have a chance with him? And what about Irakli’s girlfriend in his hometown?

As fate would have it, David comes home one night with a new drinking buddy: Irakli. They both stumble into the apartment very drunk, and David lets Irakli sleep on the floor. Merab can’t believe his luck that Irakli is spending the night in his bedroom (although in a very non-sexual way), and he stares lovingly at Irakli when Irakli’s asleep. Complicating their potential love affair is the fact that Merab and Irakli are among the school’s dancers who’ve been selected to audition for the National Georgian Ensemble, since there’s a job opening for a male dancer.

Merab and Irakli’s bond becomes closer when Irakli, who lives in Tbilisi with his grandmother (played by Tamari Skhirtladze), invites Merab over to introduce Merab to her and to spend some time alone with him in Irakli’s room. They talk some more, but Merab still isn’t quite sure if Irakli wants to be more than friends, and Merab is afraid to make the first move.

In the meantime, Irakli has joined the circle of dancer friends that include Mary, David, Merab and Sopo (played by Anano Makharadze), who’s dating David.  The clique goes on a getaway trip to the family lake house of one of the dancers, and they do a lot of partying. It’s during this fateful trip that the sparks between Merab and Irakli turn into something much more, and they have their first sexual encounter with each other, which then leads to a secret love affair.

Merab seems to be more comfortable coming to terms with his same-sex attraction, but Irakli is not. Merab likes to show affection to Irakli when people aren’t looking, but Irakli is the one more likely to feel paranoid about getting caught, so he pulls away first if Merab tries to kiss him or hold his hand in public. They both don’t feel entirely safe about coming out, but Merab takes steps to express his true sexuality by befriending an openly gay club kid who hangs out with prostitutes who are drag queens or transgender women. As Merab explores more of the gay nightlife scene, he becomes increasingly despondent over the reality that he can’t go public about his love for Irakli, who’s definitely not the type to go to a gay nightclub.

As for the gay love scenes in “And Then We Danced” that caused so much controversy in Georgia, they’re not very explicit. There’s kissing but no full-frontal nudity. The sex acts are implied through movements instead of showing everything on camera, just like the sex scenes were done in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Rocketman.” However, since Georgia is one of the Eastern European countries that has anti-LGBTQ laws, people who object to “And Then We Danced” have taken particular offense because the men having the love affair in the movie are those representing the nation’s cultural institution of Georgian dance.

Regardless of how people feel about LGBTQ rights, it can’t be denied that “And Then We Danced” is a superbly made film that’s elevated largely by Gelbakhiani (who makes his film debut in the movie) and his believably expressive performance as someone falling in love for the first time and coming to terms with his sexuality. Gelbakhiani and Valishvili (who both have several years of experience in Georgian dance) have natural chemistry together. But since the movie is told mainly from Merab’s perspective, the audience’s emotional journey is largely through him—from the spring in his steps and joy in his face when he’s in the throes of this new love affair to the anxiety and fear that threaten to plunge him into a depression when his lover doesn’t return his messages and seems to be avoiding him.

The movie’s cinematography (by Lisabi Fridell) has moments of sublime authenticity, from sweeping camera angles during big, dramatic moments to tight camera shots to capture the intensity of the dance rehearsals. Even though the movie takes place in Georgia, because writer/director Akin is Swedish, “And Then We Danced” was Sweden’s 2019 selection for the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film. Although the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination, and even though the story takes place in a specific part of the world, the concept of falling in love for the first time and facing any fears because of it, is a universal theme that will strike a chord with mature, open-minded people of any sexual orientation.

Music Box Films will release “And Then We Danced” in select U.S. cinemas on February 7, 2020. The movie was originally released parts of Europe (including Georgia and Sweden) in 2019.