Akin has produced a visual feast, one that uses turns the typical “gritty indie” look on its head by infusing that grit with magic.
And Then We Danced, writer-director Levin Akin’s queer, dance-centric coming-of-age story, screened at Cannes and was Sweden’s entry to the Academy Awards, and its quality is undeniable, particularly on a technical level. By casting a number of real-life dancers and by contrasting the aseptic whiteness of the dance studio with the lush, buttery light of nighttime fun, Akin has produced a visual feast, one that uses turns the typical “gritty indie” look on its head by infusing that grit with magic.
Set in Tbilisi, Georgia, the film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani, excellent), a hardworking young man who is involved in intense training as part of a traditional Georgian dance troupe. The training is rigorous, and the talented Merab is the frequent target of criticism from his exacting dance instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze), who thinks that Merab is too “soft.” Merab, who is lithe and muscular, is not at all soft in the physical sense; rather, Aleko is referring to the sensuality, playfulness and, at times, desperation that Merab brings to his dance.
When Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a sexy and disobedient new dancer joins their troupe, Merab is at first jealous, which of course means that the two men are going to get together. And they do, in a majestic scene involving a Robyn song, a fur hat and some sexy dancing. Unfortunately, this scene, which happens halfway through And Then We Danced, is where the film peaks. From there it follows a rote trajectory that does little to distinguish the film from other sad, queer coming-of-age stories.
On the one hand, it is admirable that Akin (who is of Georgian descent) is using And Then We Danced to shine light on the lives of gay Georgians, who must battle a very conservative society. But Gelbakhiani and Valishvili have such chemistry and the film is made so beautifully that more focus on the actual central relationship would have made for a far more interesting film. Instead, Akin leans into the clichéd trajectory of the hesitant, violence-tinged gay coming-of-age story. This is broken up by scenes of genuinely impressive dance sequences and angst between Merab and his parents, Merab and his brother and Merab and his best-friend/dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili).
While highlighting the situation that gay Georgians find themselves in (even the dancers, who we may ignorantly think would have it easier), is important, audiences are smart enough to see understand the challenges that Merab and Irakli would face while still enjoying their relationship. But Akin appears to be so eager to express the stress of Merab’s situation that he doesn’t capitalize on the film’s greatest asset. And Then We Danced ends up being notable for sidelining what could have been a great love story.
What the film doesn’t squander is Levan Gelbakhiani, who will be true movie star soon if there is any justice in the world. He plays Merab as kind and sensitive, afflicted and incredibly talented, and he is at once entirely believable and completely beguiling. His harsh features make it impossible to look away from him on the dance floor, because he uses them to show Merab’s internal conflict as his training tells him to follow the rules and his body tells him to let go and move fluidly. Valishvili offers excellent support as both dance and romantic partner.
And Then We Danced is beautifully filmed and choreographed and offers a potentially star-making performance from Levan Gelbakhiani, and it should be celebrated for that. But it could have been better, and queer audiences deserve love stories with more texture and surprise than what has become the typical queer coming-of-age story. Though Levin Akin is admirably showcasing the struggles of queer Georgians, a number of countries could be substituted in here and the film (outside of the dance) would have remained largely the same. We need bolder and different queer stories.