One is to look back whilst moving forward, keep in step yet innovate – they demand hardness as shins break on wooden floors.
History and time seep through Levan Akin’s sophomore picture AND THEN WE DANCED (2019), a film about dance, love and tradition, perhaps in opposite order. In a time when the old is increasingly being labelled as outdated and formerly secure identities continuously lose their grounding, the public reaction to this film in its home country, Georgia, is symptomatic of the fear turned violence from those, who feel the world is leaving them behind. In advance of the premiere, multiple far-right and conservative groups proclaimed their intentions to stop the three national screenings, even going as far as saying they were prepared to take on police forces. They created a corridor of shame for audience members to walk through before entering the cinemas, burned pride flags and led nationalist and homophobic chants. But despite all this, they did not to succeed. All three screenings were sold out within minutes and the film is now being distributed in many countries for many more people to see.
Deep stillness: neither sounds nor cries—
Like parent to child, my Country told me little.
From time to time I heard an anguished sigh,
Sobs while a Georgian man slept and dreamt.
(Excerpt: Ilia Chavchavadze, Georgian poet, Elegy, 1859)
Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young man in Georgia who has been training from a young age to become a professional traditional dancer, finds himself at odds with his surroundings as he pursues an exploration of his sexuality, after a new member joins his dancing troupe (Bachi Valishvili). The film takes the audience from this starting point through the various steps and possible missteps of navigating non-heterosexual desire in a deeply traditional country, all the way to Merab’s final dance of empowerment. While this is not a traditional dance film per se – there are neither dance offs nor complete performances – dance is still integral to this film. It reflects values and tradition, values Merab aspires to, despite being told multiple times he was ‘too soft’ for traditional Georgian dance. This is one way history is trying to get hold of him, another is through his absent father, a former dancer himself, who discourages him to pursue this career altogether. Dangling in between multiple points of discouragement, Merab lacks the clarity to find his own path, illustrated by the film through handheld camera and a quick disjointed editing style. Over the course of the narrative, as Merab gives into his romantic desires, the editing becomes steadier, the shots become longer, Merab finds his solid ground. One must only compare the introductory and the closing dance sequence – the former full of jump cuts and quick, sudden pans, the latter fluid and elegant in its movement.
As his sexuality is being involuntarily disclosed to his dancing group, this offers the film the possibility to present the audience with different reactions by his peers, ranging from outright instant marginalisation to initial shock leading to loving encouragement. This beautifully culminates in perhaps the greatest shot in the film. While most of the film is almost exclusively centred around Merab – with many close-ups focused on him or the camera following closely behind him as he moves – for maybe the only time in the film, the camera breaks loose during a wedding celebration and freely roams the party in a long dolly shot, being witness to a sequence of images, which equate to the most sobering love letter to the Georgian nation: a banquet of food, a group of men fighting, a dancing bride, and in the background, seen through a window, Merab’s female dancing partner chasing after him and mending former wounds — in other words, tradition, violence, beauty and kindness, all contained within one shot.
Furthermore is to mention how the film elegantly connects Merab’s sexuality, his dancing, and the ‘Georgian spirit’. Early on in the movie we are presented with the dancing troupe’s dance instructor, who boldly states that, ‘there was no sex in Georgian dance’ and ‘Georgian dance represented the Georgian spirit’. The film goes on to prove him wrong by the use of stark yellow light for the Tbilisi night streets, intimate dance scenes, as well as Merab’s and Irakli’s first sexual encounters. One should notice that all LGBT-friendly locations are colour coded differently, the bar burning red, the club blinding white. It is the streets of Georgia which are yellow, and remain yellow. Georgian dance can include sex, and all kinds of sexualities.
Wretched, black—be whoever you can;
Oh life, I hold the reins in my hands
To transform you, this hell, into heaven.
(Excerpt: Titsian Tabidze, Georgian poet, Self-portrait, 1916)
Just as Merab dons a traditional robe for his final dance, which stems from a time before the hailing of ultra-masculinity in Georgian dance and culture, the film reminds us of an alternative to the unbridled pursuit of strength and rigour. It reminds us that the Georgian spirit goes beyond insecure notions of ultrahard masculinity. Georgia is, in fact, older than hardness.
In closing, an appeal to emotionality and softness through the words of Paolo Iashvili:
Where the pyramids stand in silence,
when the sun is being married,
I shall lie down on the sun-coloured sand,
where the pyramids stand in silence,
I shall want you,
(Paolo Iashvili, Georgian poet, In The Pyramids, undated)