In his third feature, Levan Akin makes traditional Georgian dance a boldly cinematic affair, combining the disciplined physicality of a dance film with the lingering gazes of a slow-burning love story. A perfect double bill for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, released last month, And Then We Danced is a pulsing drama about forbidden desire.
The film begins with black and white archival footage of traditional Georgian dancers, men and women moving in synchrony as they are vigorously applauded by ecstatic spectators. “From the top”, we hear a man’s voice call off-camera, as the credits make way for the first shot of the protagonist, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and his dancing partner/girlfriend Mary (Ana Javakishvili) in a dance studio in present-day Tbilisi. Just as the drums and strings crescendo and the dancers hit their rhythmic stride, their master interrupts them again: “you’re too soft.”
This accusation of softness haunts Merab throughout the film as he negotiates his ambitions for a dancing career, care for his mother and wayward brother, and a growing desire for a new member of the troupe, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). The ideal dancing persona is a spectre for Merab to silently battle with – a militaristic version of masculinity that evades softness, exudes strength, but must never slip into sexuality. The heterosexual couple at the dance’s centre must “convey purity”, Merab and Mary are told as they, too, struggle to shape the terms of their own relationship. What’s more, this dance is not just a matter of art but of national identity. And this is a nation in which – according to the Georgian dance ensemble that the filmmakers had hoped to collaborate with – “homosexuality does not exist”. Early in the film, whispers are already going around that another dancer in the main ensemble has been kicked out for having sex with a man.
The film’s many scenes of dancing never feel superfluous, but rather convey the repetitive and authoritarian force of rehearsal as in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Music is used imaginatively and playfully to convey everything from whimsy (ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me) to tradition (the beautiful solemnity of Georgian plainsong) to fierce eroticism: a bare-chested Merab drunkenly dances to Robyn’s Honey for the increasingly enamoured attention of Irakli. Such gazes make way for moments of silent tenderness and then something more. The boys frequently cope with their desire for one another by childishly wrestling, and the film’s intertwining of sexuality and aggression is reminiscent of André Téchiné’s Being 17.
Gelbakhiani – remarkable for his first acting role – combines this desire with raw physicality and juvenile playfulness. His utterly convincing display of yearning looks is heightened by the intimate camera of cinematographer Lisabi Fridell. Her exquisite work is shown off best in a shot of Merab practising by the light of a streetlamp. His skin glowing with sweat, the intense contrast between light and dark evokes a Rembrandt painting but with movement. Akin’s assured directing makes this a film that doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Clara Bradbury-Rance | @CBradburyRance