At screenings of And Then We Danced in Tbilisi and Batumi, Georgia, far right groups rioted outside the cinema as police escorted viewers inside. Director Levin Akin’s third film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young dancer at the Georgian National Ensemble who comes to terms with his sexuality when he develops feelings for fellow dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). In a dance tradition rooted in military and sport movements that date back to the Middle Ages, Merab struggles to gain a prominent role in the ensemble as he is judged for not being solid (straight) enough. Irakli on the other hand, dances with a sturdiness and confidence Merab can only dream of.
Conservative groups in Georgia protested the gay content in the film. However, the Tbilisi International Film Festival regularly features queer films from directors Pedro Almodovar and Xavier Dolan without such backlash. It seemed to be the combination of queer content within the world of Georgian dance that caused the outrage. In the film, anything below the belt is out of frame and kisses are stolen in the middle of the night, the threat of being exposed lurking around every corner. Akin explained that him and the crew lied in order to secure filming locations as many locations backed out once they discovered the plot revolves around gay men. The choreographer of the film’s dance sequences still remains anonymous for their safety. If this was a story about two dancers in the American or French ballet, it would not be as shocking or cause violent protests amongst the far right. But in Georgia, a small country that holds its identity dear as they often face Russian dominance, conservative groups feel that the perception of Georgian strength is essential to their security as a nation.
Akin’s film proves protestors wrong. In Merab, we find a young man who loves his country and its traditional dances. After all, he dedicates his life to mastering them. Set to dramatic drum beats, the dances consist of men and women moving in stiff militaresque marches without looking at each other because as their teacher says “There is no sex in Georgian dance.”
The central conflict in the film is between young and old, tradition and modernity. While the students dance to Georgian drums during the day, they party to Robyn (“Honey”) and Abba (“Take a Chance of Me”) at night, giving the film a diverse and energizing soundtrack. Merab is most in his body in gay clubs where he can move freely without the gendered Georgian traditions. The young dancers in the film never spit on tradition, they simply want to expand it. They bring these traditional dances into the street at night, using them as expressions of youthful desire, sharing them with the public often shut out of cultural institutions.
And Then We Danced is a visually stunning film, Merab draped in a gentle light as he moves fluidly in a sunroom to seduce Irakli. While the protestors worry that gay men are a threat to Georgian strength, Merab is strongest when he lets go of tradition and gendered expectations. Loving a man gives him the confidence to unapologetically dance in his own style in front of an authority figure, making Merab an homage to the revolutionary men of Georgia who fought for the nation’s independence in the face of Soviet rule.