Dance is an art form that was originally meant to communicate a story and its message to the audience. But more than that, the beauty of dance actually lies in how it can convey human emotions through physical language that waltz between predefined choreography and freeform movement. Movies like Footloose and Dirty Dancing have long documented that concept, depicting the beauty of dance as a form of expressing human emotions. Though Levan Akin’s remarkable third feature And Then We Danced also uses dance as a medium to convey the main character’s emotion, the film manages to reach a monumental achievement by using the identity of Georgian dance to rebel against the harm of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity, and to remind us that loving a culture can be achieved on your own terms.
The story takes place in Tbilisi, the capital country of Georgia, and it concerns Merab, an ambitious young Georgian man who has been dancing ever since he was a child, as he grapples with his own sexuality and identity. When we first meet him, Merab is criticized in rehearsal for being too feminine by his dance instructor Aleko. “You should be like a nail,” he snaps. “Georgian dance is based on masculinity. There is no room for weakness in Georgian dance.” Having been wanted to be selected as one of the main ensemble for a very long time, of course, Merab does his best to be the kind of dancer his instructor wants him to be. But despite his massive effort and ambitions, Merab keeps struggling to fulfill that expectation.
Merab’s problem, however, is not just inside the dance studio. He also has to work tirelessly as a waiter so that he can keep the lights on for his family while dealing with his reckless, drunken brother who keeps making a mess that Merab has to clean up. When Irakli, a charming and masculine new dancer, arrives to join his dance studio, Merab is even more burdened by the thought that his position in the main ensemble might get threatened by Irakli’s talent. But after an early rehearsal together and an opportunity to get to know him better, the rivalry turns into adoration. And before long, it turns into desire, which both of them act on during a weekend getaway in the country home of Merab’s dance partner ‘girlfriend’ Mary.
Though what follows is a predictable coming-of-age story of one’s sexual awakening, Akin manages to use this narrative in a more refreshing way, exploring a story of what it means to have the freedom to express yourself and your desire without being scared of the social expectations that confine you. No doubt that the dynamic between Merab and Irakli in And Then We Danced might remind you of Elio and Oliver’s in Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name. But where the latter leads to a discovery of heartbreak and explores the complexity of a romantic encounter, Akin is far more concerned about Merab’s journey of making peace with himself and his sexuality. So in that regard, it’s not a coincidence that Merab’s love story with Irakli only serves as the first half of the narrative, and the question of whether they will end up together in the end or not is merely secondary to what the film is trying to say.
In fact, what Akin has brilliantly done in the film is to reframe Merab’s awakening of first love and first heartbreak to underscore the film’s message on the importance of self-expression. Merab feels a little less oppressed after he meets Irakli. Their relationship allows Merab to discover himself and celebrate his freedom. And watching him slowly beginning to loosen up throughout the film is one of the joys of And Then We Danced. Beyond that, when the film is positioned within the context of Georgian dance, which is preoccupied more with the idea of asserting dominance rather than being a place to express human emotions, And Then We Danced also operates as a metaphor of Georgia as a country that forbids homosexuality and oppresses its people for being who they are. But here’s what’s interesting about the way Akin approaches this urgent context: never once does the film feel overtly political as if it wants to rebuke Georgian conservative culture and homophobia. Instead, Akin chooses to handle it on a personal level from Merab’s evolution throughout the film, which ends with him finally expressing his identity and embracing his sexuality while performing the Georgian dance on his own terms – soft and playful, not rigid as told by his instructor. To see Merab perform this dance at the end of the film is a liberating experience. But more than that, it’s an ending that feels hopeful and revolutionary.
Merab’s journey is moving and empowering, and Akin’s direction is engaging. But the film won’t work without Levan Gelbaikhani’s magnetic performance, who impressively is a first-time performer. His facial expressions allow us to feel the joy and pain that Merab is feeling, offering tenderness and confusion that come from Merab’s curiosity of first love. It’s truly a remarkable work, both physical and emotional – primal and vulnerable. In the end, though it may not entirely reinvent the queer romance film narrative, And Then We Danced is a monumental dance choreographed by Levan Akin that celebrates love, freedom, and self-expression; one that is personal and political altogether.
Reyzando Nawara is a passionate Indonesian based film and TV enthusiast who enjoys to write and discuss about cinema or anything TV-related. Big fan of Mia Hansen-Løve, Alex Ross Perry, and Noah Baumbach.