sat 30/05/2020

And Then We Danced review - glorious Georgian gay coming-of-age tale | reviews, news & interviews

And Then We Danced review - glorious Georgian gay coming-of-age tale

And Then We Danced review - glorious Georgian gay coming-of-age tale

Big heart and winning story distinguish this Caucasian youth dance piece

Partners on and off stage: Bachi Valishvili as Irakly, left, with Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab

The final sequence of Levan Akin’s coming-of-age drama And Then We Danced is as gloriously defiant a piece of dance action as anything you’ll remember falling for in Billy Elliot.

The final sequence of Levan Akin’s coming-of-age drama And Then We Danced is as gloriously defiant a piece of dance action as anything you’ll remember falling for in Billy Elliot. Merab, the film’s youthful dancer protagonist (played by Levan Gelbakhiani, pictured below, in his first screen role) has been through a lot by then – the trials of first love, exacerbated by the realisation that he’s gay – and those closing minutes see him asserting his right to be who he is at an audition that pits him against his highly conservative surroundings.

It’s a clash of values in every sense. The Georgian National Dance tradition in which he’s been raised demands strictly stylised moves, but Merab has shaped that training in his own way, adding elements of expressive improvisation. Instead of prescribed rigid control of emotions, his gestures and movements are fluid, his face vivacious. He offers the kind of performance that would fit naturally into a contemporary dance environment elsewhere in the world, but as Akin’s story has by then made clear, it’s one that has no place in the choreographic world of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia – that’s the Caucasus, rather than the Deep South – where And Then We Danced is set.And Then We Danced

And nor, finally, does Merab, whose sexuality is fated to be another defining difference that will set him apart from the society in which he has grown up. It’s one in which homophobic prejudice somehow hangs indolently in the air, a relic of tradition over the ages that's encouraged by populist politics and especially institutions such as the Orthodox Church. (Protestors from that institution duly turned out in their thousands to protest the few screenings that And Then We Danced, which premiered at Cannes in the 2019 Directors’ Fortnight programme, received in Georgia at the end of last year – just as they do every time anyone in Tbilisi attempts a Pride March.) The prejudice is there, too, in the dressing rooms of the National Dance ensemble at which Merab is training – “There is no sex in Georgian dance!”, one ballet master insists early on – a point brought home by the fact that one of the troupe’s soloists has just been cast out after being caught with another man (even worse, he was in flagrante with an Armenian, a wry piece of national chauvinism that's revealing about Caucasian local rivalries).

It’s a world in which coming out, or being exposed as gay can mean that you really do lose everything. The hostility isn’t everywhere, of course, and certainly not in the home life that surrounds Merab: Akin’s penultimate scene, between Merab and his older brother David, another erstwhile dancer whose wastrel habits have put an end to his career, is of enormous power, as David insists that his sibling get out of this world, one in which his natural – and naturally optimistic – energy has no hope of flourishing. Equally, Merab's closeness to his longtime dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili, pictured below with Gelbakhiani), a friendship that’s on the verge of becoming that of boyfriend and girlfriend, won't be affected: when rumours about him reach her, Mary’s reaction, after an initial hurt, is most of all concern for Merab’s future.And Then We DancedAkin’s screenplay is rich in such details of everyday life and family circumstance. Born in Sweden into a family with Georgian roots, his circumstances surely give him an element of simultaneous involvement with, and detachment from the world which he depicts here. It’s an environment in which women somehow keep society going, emphasising its sense of continuity: Merab himself comes from a dance family, with his grandmother, a benignly dominant presence at home, as well as his parents (now separated, his father down on his luck) all past performers with the ensemble where he’s training.

Akin breaks the everyday routine of his film with an out-of-town dacha excursion to mark Mary’s birthday, which brings her dance friends together with her wider family unit, complete with some glorious scenes of group singing that are relished by Swedish cinematographer Lisabi Fridell’s lingering camerawork. It’s a timeless moment somehow, one that emphasises the enduring foundations of a world whose immediate structure has been severely stressed by the dramatic changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. That landmark event may have given Georgia independence, but it came at the cost of severe economic rites of passage, as well as the rapid exposure of a previously enclosed society to the wider, globalist world. In fact, And Then We Danced looks like it’s set a few years ago, hinted at by an allusion to the Russian invasion in 2008 as well as by the relative poverty of its everyday environment: things like the regular power cuts that marked the Shevardnadze years at the beginning of the century clearly remain in the folk memory.And Then We DancedThose birthday celebrations may convey a warmly inclusive sense of connection between the generations, as well as the sheer wine-fuelled joy of young people partying together, but they also bring the growing, increasingly loaded friendship between Merab and Irakly (Bachi Valishvili), a newcomer to the dance company who’s become a rival for some of Merab’s roles, to a head (main picture). Akin handles their sexual initiation with real acuity, the tenderness of these “two boys together clinging” moderated by their apprehension as to what it may mean for their futures. Revealingly, they kiss only at their second encounter, and there's surely a difference of reaction in their eyes: as Merab, Gelbakhiani’s features show the spontaneous excitement of new feelings, while Valishvili’s face seems more than anything to express an element of fear.

It would be easy to detect elements of the formulaic in how And Then We Danced progresses from that moment on towards its resolution, but the sheer spirit of the film resists such reduction. Fridell’s lensing relishes the light of the (presumably) autumnal colours of the piece with equal absorption to that which she brings to its hypnotic dance moments, while Akin’s script, sustained by plenty of humour, is deeply grounded in the fabric of everyday life, its deprivations and exhaustion included. Gelbakhiani has an absolute aliveness to him that captivates, his smile so naturally, occasionally flirtatiously open to the world. It’s a remarkable performance for a first-timer, and we can only hope that the future will offer him material that encourages his development as an actor. The youthful cast of And Then We Danced bring a real feeling of life to its winning story: this is a film with a big heart.

It’s is a world in which coming out, or being exposed as gay can mean that you really do lose everything

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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