By Katherine Connell
From drag performances to ballroom extravaganzas, booming club sequences to solitary swaying, queer cinema has often depicted moments of yearning or self-actualization through dance: think, for instance, of the erotic and essayistic function it serves in Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989),Edward and Gaveston’s spotlit slow dancing in Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), the adolescent hero’s furious romp through back allies and rooftops in Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000),or the sublime hotel dance party to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in Céline Sciamma’s Bande des filles (2014). Set in the traditional world of Tbilisi’s Georgian National Dance Ensemble, And Then We Danced, the third feature by writer-director Levan Akin, modifies this motif of dance as a liberating mode of self-expression or pleasure for an emergent queer subject by focusing instead on the strict parameters of Georgian dance and the slow-to-evolve propriety of its traditions. This cultural strain was well-demonstrated by the right-wing backlash that greeted the film in Georgia, where screenings have been met with violent protests (Akin’s diasporic status surely adds fuel to the reactionary fire: though his family is of Georgian descent, he was born and works in Sweden).
In the film’s sweaty, severe opening scene, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a driven but underestimated dancer at the Ensemble, rehearses the Adjarian duet with his partner/quasi-girlfriend Mary (Ana Javakishvili) before they are cut short by their cantankerous instructor, Aleko (Kakha Gogidze). “You’re too soft,” Aleko shouts to Merab, “you need to be like a monument!” Merab and Mary’s second attempt—this time too flirty and coquettish—earns them another warning: “There’s no sex in Georgian dance. This isn’t the lambada!” As if on cue, in walks a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), sarcastic, smirking, and wearing a hoop earring, which he’s promptly forced to remove. The irony of this moment, of course, hinges on the fact that Irakli’s presence literallyintroduces sex—and, doubly transgressive, gay desire—into the traditional world of Georgian dance. Irakli is instructed to take Merab’s place in the duet, and, whereas Merab’s softness betrays him, Irakli’s confident and stoic dancing allows him to pass muster with the demanding Aleko. Although Merab initially interprets his sexual and romantic interest in Irakli as competitive obsession, his antagonism wanes when the two begin practising together. Against the high-stakes homophobia of Georgian society, their tense, sensual, and surreptitious courtship must be coded through touches and glances while the other male dancers aggressively, compulsively perform their heterosexuality, both in their dancing and in their changeroom peacocking about sex and jerking off. This coterie includes Merab’s hot-tempered and hard-partying brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli), who, despite his lack of discipline and general apathetic attitude towards dance, is nevertheless still viewed as the more talented and promising sibling.
While Akin’s film explores familiar themes within LGBTQI+ cinema—the ways that enforced secrecy prevent a relationship from flourishing, the formative sting of first love lost—its distinctive setting and story set it decisively apart from the genre’s current, mainstream standard-bearer, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017). Not only do the precarious financial circumstances of Merab and his family present a stark contrast to the lush Italian villa and environs in which Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer play out their courtship, but Akin also foregoes the romantic glaze and emotionally manipulative crescendos of Guadagnino’s film, the latter exemplified by the now-iconic monologue delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg (as Chalamet’s father) in which he not only accepts his son’s sexuality, but conjures up a flawlessly poetic speech about the inevitability of heartbreak. Although this kind of wish-fulfillment can serve a healing purpose in the context of LGBTQI+ cinema—acting as a salve to trauma, violence, and oppression in the real world—it is also often bound up with classist assumptions and a certain amount of liberal self-congratulation.
In And Then We Danced, Merab’s coming-out moment stands as a challenging antithesis to Stuhlbarg’s soliloquy. On the night of David’s hasty wedding to the girlfriend he accidentally impregnated, Merab is rejected by Irakli, who has decided to return to his hometown to care for his ailing father and achieve financial stability by marrying a woman. A devastated Merab crawls into bed and curls into himself, when, suddenly, David enters their shared room, covered in bruises after a fight with their “friends,” who had been slinging homophobic slurs at Merab. “Did I take a beating in vain?” he asks Merab; “Maybe,” says Merab, staring fixedly at his brother and then burying his head in his pillow. In a moment that is truly surprising, David touches Merab’s face and embraces him, and as he gently speaks to his brother it becomes clear that he is the onlyperson who sees Merab’s situation clearly and unselfishly. “I will just end up a drunk, fat Georgian man who works for his father-in-law,” he confesses, still stroking his brother’s cheek; “You need to get out of Georgia, Merab. You have no future here.” (Beyond its emotional impact, David’s line here will remind queer theory buffs of No Future, Lee Edelman’s scathing polemic about the threat that the queer subject represents to a social order glued together by the idea of the heterosexual family.)
If David’s words convey a certain brutal common sense, Akin nevertheless isn’t interested in positing Georgian culture as wholly oppressive or backwards. Rather, he seeks out the rich contradictions that can emerge from the meeting between Georgian traditions and globalized youth culture, an intersection actualized in a scene where Merab improvises a sticky, seductive, shirtless dance to Robyn’s “Honey” in front of a smoking, staring Irakli, while DP Lisabi Fridell bathes the performance in a liquid ochre light. (It’s perhaps a nod to Akin’s upbringing that all the popular music included in the film is by Swedish artists.) There’s an exquisite sense of freedom to this performance, even as it carries with it the overtone of a vanitas, in the sense that this moment of happiness and sensuality is fleeting.
Counterbalancing the fatalistic trajectory of the film’s narrative, however, Akin ends on a note of combativeness and self-assertion. Despite a broken foot and a broken heart, Merab shows up to his final audition wearing his ex-lover’s red chokha (the wool jacket worn by male dancers). He begins his performance, only to suddenly break out into a freestyle that, with flourishing hands and sashaying hips, flaunts the “softness” that Aleko had earlier decried, which drives the infuriated head of the ensemble from the room in protest. Both a mockery and a celebration of the artistic practice that has sustained his life, Merab’s performance is a testament to the things that queer dance and movement can do: a camp revision of national traditions, a defiance of authority, an exorcism of pain, and a leap into a future that is both uncertain and exhilarating.