The Dialectics of Dance
Levan Akin’s 2019 film And Then We Danced
Levan Akin’s 2019 film And Then We Danced begins with a dance class in medias res. The National Georgian Ensemble’s instructor and choreographer, Aleko (Kakha Gogidze), announces that the class must go “From the top”, so the film he is in cuts to a cycle of medium and close-up shots of his dancers as traditional Georgian folk music propels the class and narrative into motion. The noise offers a mixture of discordant strings and wind instruments on top of an array of hand drums, accompanied by images of the at present anonymous dancers, dressed in all black and swept up by the disorientating bustle of Lisabi Fridell’s camerawork. As spectators, we too are absorbed by the frenetic instantaneity of the scene until everyone is dragged reluctantly out of the experience. After gesticulating to the group to tell them to stop, Aleko feigns to address them all but locks eyes with the ginger haired Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) and declares that “You should be like a snail. From the top.”
“You’re too soft”, “You’re too playful”, and other indirect or direct criticisms of Merab abound before the scene changes, successively establishing the parameters of Swedish/Georgian director Akin’s third feature film: a world where eyes are constantly on his protagonist and judgement and criticism are never far behind. Fittingly, this narrative situation second guessed the real-world response to the finished film on the other side of the camera. And Then We Danced was subject to controversy in its native country, its theatrical release marred by Ultra-conservative groups threatening to disrupt screenings so unrelentingly that in November 2019 the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs mobilised troops and placed special riot police outside cinemas to counter protests. All planned screenings went ahead regardless, and the film was later put forward as Sweden’s entry for the 92nd Academy Awards, representing the country Akin was born in. His impressive and expertly crafted piece of work is a model of artistic perseverance in the face of politicisation and hate, subjects which are also being addressed internally and ones that are too familiar to twenty-first century audiences. Georgia’s tantrum of backlash took issue with the biological fact of Merab’s homosexuality, which he goes to lengths to hide from his peers, family, and wider Georgian society but which Akin’s film communicates front and centre. This pretence of secrecy and suppression unravels the longer we spend time with Merab, amplifying his and Akin’s fundamental resistance of their country’s bigotry.
Extending the cinematic legacy of this performing art, And Then We Danced reinvigorates and modernises the narrative application of dance, using a rulebook steeped in history and tradition to discuss identity, authenticity, personal truth, and shift the attention from technique to the subject dancing. From the horror of Dario Argento to the psychodrama of Darren Aronofsky, dance in film has historically functioned as a platform for mystery and paradox, using space and externality as a means of a peering inside the skull of the dancer. The understanding proves accurate if we think about the formal kineticism of both the original Suspiria (1977) and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 version, or if pitted against the comparative “remake” logics of Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), or considered in light of Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018), Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), or Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009). For Akin’s film, this internal-external dichotomy is compounded by Merab’s survivalist confidentiality regarding his sexuality.
Interspersed between time at the National Georgian Ensemble are scenes set at Merab’s cramped apartment, shared by the brother (Giorgi Tsereteli) who is supposed to be attending the same dance classes as Merab but more often skips, their grandmother, and the mother who attempts to hold this family together while its father (her presumably ex-husband) lives a separate life on the opposite side of Tbilisi. Merab visits this father at one point in the film and we learn that he and Merab’s mother used to be part of the same dance institution that their sons now are. The result of the parents’ shared pursuit is their separation and the mother’s subsequent financial struggle. In one scene, Merab returns home from a shift as a restaurant waiter – a job his brother David joins him at, until he is caught buying drugs out front and gets them both fired – to find his mother and grandmother huddled around a candle because the family were not able to cover the electricity bill. David later covers the utilities but with what we deduce is drug money. This moment signposts the family’s economic difficulty, as does Merab returning from work with leftovers from the restaurant during the section of the film when he still works there. Mum is initially unhappy with her son’s doing so as she is embarrassed at how this might look to the restaurant staff, but the anger quickly dissipates and she and grandma get a plate and cutlery. While they do this, Merab apologises for not being able to get a pay advance from his boss, realising the desperation of the electricity situation prior to his brother’s dubious method of finding the money for it. Merab’s selflessness consolidate his decision to keep his sexuality a secret, which his family might come to terms with when back on their feet but which his country’s conservative society at large would condemn. Merab subdues his feelings, his desires, his truth, most importantly to prioritise his aspirations of a dance career.
Merab’s control of this equilibrium and rhythm – silencing his sexuality, looking out for his family, going to class, surviving, aspiring – begins to destabilise when replacement dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) enters the picture. During the film’s first dance rehearsals, Irakli announces his introduction by turning up late for the first of them. The new member of the group turns heads and is immediately questioned for wearing an earring, but not by Merab who watches from a distance without being able to keep his eyes off the stranger. The tall, confident Irakli is given further informal induction tests when some of the male dancers confront him in the shower and experiment with his temper, skewering the elephant in the room by questioning his sexual preference, then making derogatory comments about the seemingly fictional girlfriend Irakli claims to have waiting for him back home. As it turns out, this girlfriend exists and later unwittingly puts an end to the blossoming relationship Irakli develops with Merab. Irakli’s relationship with her serves as a wilful distraction from his sexual truth; she is a front as Mary (Ana Javakhishvili) is for Merab, the casual fling both concealing his secret and writing her off as a possibility when Irakli asks is she is single, when he too is maintaining a performance of heterosexuality. Before Merab sees right through his deception, Irakli is complicit in the same toxic masculine objectification Merab has learned to turn on when a flashlight is being held in his face in the changing room in-between rehearsals. Irakli pretends to ogle with the others and laughs at jokes about the female dancers’ bodies; by the midpoint of And Then We Danced, this persona is replaced by the real Irakli, who sneaks out with Merab in the night during a trip out of the city with some of the group. They do so to smoke cigarettes in a quiet, secluded idyll hidden behind a few trees, but this swiftly becomes the stage for their passionate sexual affair, conducted as tacitly and fleetingly as their society determines it must be.
The female changing room at the National Georgian Ensemble hosts an altogether different atmosphere. Here, via Mary we learn that Irakli is replacing a male dancer who was kicked out of the class and severely beaten after being caught having sex with another man. This man hangs over the film as the potential threat to Merab’s entire course of action. As his pseudo-girlfriend Mary warns when rumours about him and Irakli circulate amongst the dancers, he will end up just like Zaza. This risk but also the fact of Merab’s ambition transcending the smallness of his country point to escape as the only logical pathway – as David tells him in one of the siblings’ few meaningful exchanges in a two-hour runtime: “You need to get out of Georgia, Merab.” Their father, for all his comparable and inherited flaws, escalates this advice to getting out of the suffocating, backwards artistic practice generally: “There’s no future for Georgian dance. Being a dancer is a dog’s life. You ruin your body.” Another refrain in Akin’s film as loudly communicates the understanding that Georgian dance is a limiting, stale institution: Mary smokes what she claims to be British cigarettes throughout the runtime, on one occasion even waxing lyrical about London milkshakes. The possibility that London, Britain, or anywhere other than Georgia could symbolise a more inclusive, openminded atmosphere (or that this would even be an attainable reality) deteriorates until it is a confessed delusion. As Mary reveals towards the end of the film, she has been putting Georgian cigarettes in a British packet the whole time.
The film’s necessary, realistic puncturing of its false hope is mirrored in the way its dance scenes mutate into different forms. Those of Merab in class do not vary, sustaining a visual interest in the top halves of bodies rather than below, ignoring the footwork that is as central to Georgian dance as it is to any kind. During these, the music drowns out all other noise; you cannot hear Merab and the group breathing, so sweat just appears. The scenes on the fateful trip out of town with Irakli and others are the antithesis: the music is equally loud, but non-diegetic; the dancers wear a whole colour palate instead of their usual black uniform; they drink while they move, breaking free from a predetermined structure of shapes and gestures and permitting the camera to follow them as they do this, capturing head to toe and everything in between. Something similar happens when the group go for a night out, when they are once again liberated from the limitations of class and free from the steely gaze of Aleko. This, however, is itself diametrically opposed to a different night out slightly later in the film. Likely as a result of the rumours being spread and the implications of these, Irakli has stopped picking up Merab’s calls. Merab’s mentality spirals while his brother persistently gets himself and his family into trouble. Directly after David loses himself and Merab the restaurant job, the younger brother goes for a solitary all-nighter in the city. The following morning, Merab turns up to class as a shadow of himself, blatantly hungover, his hair a mess, his behaviour erratic and out of character. This again translates to how Lisabi Fridell’s cinematography presents movement: Merab pirouettes over and over and manically, not stopping despite Aleko’s instructions to, the camera fixating on this single figure rather than collective motion as it has done so often throughout the film, isolating and pointing a finger at it. Merab badly sprains his ankle in this scene, so is forced to spend time away from class to recover, to his anger. Echoing his father’s words towards the beginning of the film, Aleko tells him that “Georgian dance is based on masculinity […] there is no room for weakness.”
Merab’s instructor is spelling out the reality he has been tricking himself into believing is transformable for the duration of And Then We Danced. This relies on a hope that Georgia, the institution of dance, or society generally will change, will not discriminate against him because of his sexual preference, will not actively try to mould him into one, univocal version of masculinity. Merab’s cathartic realisation of this belief’s futility derails the entire film and his dance career in the process. Its denouement – Merab’s audition – devolves into the voluntary subversion of his years of training. The scene is an empowering, defiant middle finger to the prejudicial, unfair systems that surround the protagonist on all sides. His examiner turns to Aleko and declares that “He’s making a mockery of Georgian dance. Cut his hands off”, before storming out of the studio. The turn of events shouts what earlier, quieter, more discrete scenes communicated about Georgian society and its treatment of Merab and his community.
Take the moment an elderly woman on the bus makes her discomfort with Merab vocal as a prime example. On the way from class to work, with no time to change and the absolute necessity of providing for his family (without jeopardising his future) at the forefront of his mind, Merab changes shirt quickly enough that most people on the bus do not notice his half-nudity, except for the elderly woman who he prods with an elbow. Her blunt, rude reply to the accident seems to summarise the frank simplicity of Merab’s whole situation. Georgia is not going to change, just like his brother, whose troubles escalate to the extent that he gets an Armenian girl pregnant and must marry her. This wedding night ends with David getting in a fight defending Merab’s honour. The older brother returns to the cramped family apartment, bruised and bloodied, and asks Merab if the rumours are true, who tells him that they are but knows that the harmonious response his coming out gets will not always be this, and will certainly differ with others he tells. As such, the solution is simple: Merab must turn his back on dance, the Georgian National Ensemble, and everything the two symbolise, even if (as he reveals towards the beginning of the film) he has been dancing “since I could walk.” After this, where Merab will go and what he will do are subject to speculation. Disrupting the cinematic tradition of giving dance a big screen – its energy, its movement, its motion – And Then We Danced leaves us with only a still, black image and a credits list.