When art is at its most unbridled, we discover something about ourselves, whether we are the creator or the receiver. It speaks to that part of us which sits closest to our hearts, sometimes something we aren’t able to articulate. This has always been especially true of dance, an art form that balances control with freedom. The language of dance is perhaps human expression at its most primal, a physical language you feel in your own body as you watch it. In ‘And Then We Danced’, Swedish-Georgian filmmaker Levan Akin calls upon this language for a story specific to a culture and a world he loves, but universal in its impact.
Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) has been training and dancing in the National Georgian Ensemble since a young age. His commitment to his art, his ensemble and his country is absolute, but no matter how hard he works, something seems to be holding him back. However, when confident and assured dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) joins the ensemble, Merab’s world his thrown into chaos as Irakli goes from being his greatest rival to the object of his heart's desire.
At its most rudimentary narrative foundation, the story Akin has to tell is one we’ve seen before, so much so that as the film unfolds, you think you know where he’s going with it. However, the unexpected joy of ‘And Then We Danced’ is not what it is telling, but how it is being told. When placed within the context of Georgian tradition and national identity (neither of which support homosexuality), this familiar setup bursts into life with striking relevance and a new texture. We suddenly become as wrapped up in a journey of discovery as Merab himself, immersing ourselves in the richness of Georgian culture, and every step that Merab takes to find his feet within this world he loves but cannot accommodate for him, we step with him. By some miracle, the familiar story of a young gay man finding himself becomes new and celebratory again - the giddy joy of glimpsing a naked male form, the intoxicating danger of reaching for what you long for, the painful confusion of reading any possible signs, the physical agony, the emotional torment and the shuddering joy as skin touches skin and lip touches lip.
This serves as the launchpad though for ‘And Then We Danced’ to leap beyond its familiar narrative towards a whole other film entirely, from a potential love story to a stunning statement on the importance, violence and joy of self-expression. We watch Merab’s suffocating self-discipline begin to loosen, watch him discover fears and desires he never knew he had, watch them ripple and rise throughout his body, feel his confusion and longing and pain and desire, and then witness as they allow him to step outside of himself and discover who he really is - as a brother, a lover, an artist and as a man. His relationship with Irakli unlocks Merab's deeper understanding of his art and his relationship with it, where the traditional parameters do not. Levan uses the affair with Irakli as a catalyst for Merab’s personal and artistic awakening, and in that sense, ‘And Then We Danced’ offers something refreshing and deeply powerful to LBGTIQ+ cinema: a statement on the need to know one's self and to be allowed to be whatever we find. It doesn’t deny the pain of Merab’s journey, with quiet moments of sorrow and loss that, because of his awareness of his own body, manifest physically in every one of his muscles, but that pain only makes the victories all the greater and his art more necessary. There’s a defiance to ‘And Then We Danced’ - a demand to be seen and be heard, a need woven deep into Merab himself - and the moment where that defiance erupts, you can’t help but sit back in awe.
It’s clear in every frame how much love Akin has for his protagonist, his subject, his film and his culture. The dialogue struggles at points (possibly through translating from one language to another), but the moments where language fails, Akin allows the body to take over, capturing arias and primal screams expressed through muscle and bone. The kinetic relationship between the camera and the dance sequences is breathtaking, each one more dynamic than the last, and these become the narrative, thematic, visual and emotional centrepieces of the film. Cinematographer Lisabi Fridell drives her camera into the heart and heat of Merab’s world, capturing each literal and emotional strain and crack with thrilling intensity, while Akin and co-editor Simon Carlgren piece it together with a muscular, musical rhythm that, at its peak, sets your heart racing. He also permeates the film with great sadness at the gulf caused by culture and tradition at odds with our now deeper understanding of human emotions, needs and desires.
Newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani is a revelation, delivering a performance that leaves you utterly spellbound.
There’s such a love for country and culture within Akin’s approach and in his crafting of the character of Merab, and the slow realisation that the culture itself is preventing Merab from truly discovering himself becomes a greater heartbreak of the film than his relationship with Irakli. This feels like new and exciting territory for an LBGTIQ+ film to explore, especially for an English-speaking audience where our countries have moved towards a better understanding of sexuality and gender. ‘And Then We Danced’ is a love story, but it is a love story between a young man and his country, and its heartbreak is in reconciling who he is with who he needs to be.
Akin gathers together a young ensemble of remarkable actors, dancers and newcomers for his film, and Bachi Valishvili excels with Irakli’s easy cockiness and enthralling confidence. Ana Javakishvili is also wonderful as Merab’s dance partner Mary, grappling with what she is discovering about her partner and what that means for him, for her and for her perception of the world, while Giorgi Tsereteli as Merab’s older brother David takes centre stage in the final act with a moment of tremendous generosity.
The central performance though is another matter entirely. As Merab, newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani is a revelation, delivering a performance that leaves you utterly spellbound. His work is full-bodied, elemental, physical, primal and deeply, deeply honest. His command of the language of his body is staggering, somehow able to express Merab’s freedom and terror, defiance and longing, joy and sorrow, almost all at once. This is work as intense and passionate as Josh O’Connor’s in ‘God’s Own Country’, Timothée Chalamet’s in ‘Call Me By Your Name’ or Adèle Haenel in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’. Performances this raw, this honest, are something rare and miraculous, and the camera adores every magical moment of Gelbakhiani it can capture. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more perfect union between actor, character, director and film in recent memory, especially because of Gelbakhiani’s remarkable skills as a dancer, capable of speaking the languages of desire and longing in a way that no traditional actor could. Akin knows how lucky he is to have found Levan Gelbakhiani, and not only pushes him to do great work, but crafts the film in such a way as to allow him to excel. In its final moments, everything that makes ‘And Then We Danced’ such an arresting piece of work comes together, and both the film and Gelbakhiani reach for the sublime. As it builds and builds, you feel the need to stand and cheer, so pure are its intentions and so spectacular is its execution.
‘And Then We Danced’ is such a special film, crafted with love and necessity, honest in its intentions and pure in heart. I found myself totally swept up in it and, by the end, my heart burst with love for it. This will easily go down as an LBGTIQ+ classic; how extraordinary is it for Georgia to have such a film as part of its cinematic legacy, not just for its craft but for what it represents. ‘And Then We Danced’ is the past and the present at odds, with the future ultimately at stake, rendered in flesh and bone by the powerhouse debut performance of Levan Gelbakhiani, easily one of the best of the year. Levan Akin has made a remarkable film, a passionate dance for love, for country, for tradition, for art and for survival.