And Then We Danced had its premiere in Georgia on 8th December 2019. I got to first experience this tender film at the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier in August. Due to the queer themes explored, the film was met with significant protest from conservative groups, such as The Georgian March and The Georgian Orthodox Church. The film details a queer romance, yes, but is also an exploration of queer Georgian identity.

While the push for LGBTQ rights has been a fraught one in Georgia, they are one of the very few former Soviet Bloc countries to enact a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual and gender identity. A small Tbilisi Pride was also successfully held in 2019, even though it was initially cancelled after threats were made to would-be participants. Organisers also decided to join protests against visiting Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov. A march for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia was held in 2012, organised by Identoba, and was met with protest and eventually called off due to the physical assault of marchers by opposing groups, including those of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Georgian LGBTQ activism has developed significantly to this day, albeit still in tension with conservative sects of Georgian society. The film’s cast and crew received no support from their national funding body when the film premiered at Cannes.  The film did, however, receive cash rebates for the production through the Enterprise Georgia-backed program Film in Georgia, a joint initiative of both the Ministry of Culture and Sustainable Development, and the Ministry of Culture and Monuments Protection of Georgia. The film’s choreographer had to remain anonymous for their own safety. Likewise, the film was selected as Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Language Feature at the 2020 Academy Awards, not Georgia’s. This speaks to Akin being firmly rooted in the Swedish film industry and the importance of international co-productions to stories such as these.

The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) a talented dancer who specialises in Georgian traditional dance. The film opens with his dance coach Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) yelling at him that he is too soft. That him and his partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) must be pure and virginal. You need to be more like a monument, he says. “There is no sex in Georgian dance. This isn’t the Lambada!” Importantly, he tells him that his body, his wrists and arms need to be tense and strong; not fluid.

According to Vishnevetsky, this is emblematic of the strict adherence to tradition in Georgian dancing:

At heart, Georgian dance is a dance of gender roles in which the male dancers’ displays of athletically stylized machismo get most of the attention. Dressed in Chokhas—the traditional long coats of the Caucasus, decorated with pockets for rifle cartridges across the chest—the men perform impossible struts, leaps, spins, and landings. Sometimes they carry swords or wear the imposing woolen hats called Papakhas, acting out ideals of camaraderie, competition, and manly pursuits in dance.1

Merab’s position in this hyper masculine dance troupe is thrown into chaos further when he meets enigmatic newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili, “Hercules” in Georgian). When Aleko announces that the national troupe have an opening for a male dancer, the two men begin training with each other. A friendship soon sparks, leading to a sexual encounter at a house party in the countryside.

Merab’s sexual awakening is explored through dance. As he embraces his own queerness, he starts to change how he dances, moving more fluidly and gently – going against the initial orders of his coach. The film is not just about Merab and Irakli’s romance. It is about his exploration of both feminine and masculine movements and that, sometimes, it is okay to be soft.

Irakli’s eventual rejection of Merab speaks to the fluidity of a Georgian queer identity. In the Georgian context, men who have sex with men (MSM) don’t “recognise and uniformly apply Western sexual identity labels such as ‘gay’, ‘straight’, ‘bisexual’ or even ‘MSM,’” write Meyer et al.2 These men engage with “locally meaningful types to describe themselves, placing elements of sexual practice in relation to other, non-sexual demographic and personal factors.”3 Georgia is culturally positioned between Europe and Russia. LGBTQ rights is seen as a decadent Western value, which is counter-positioned against common traditional values dominated by Russia in the post-Soviet space.4 Both Russian and Georgian populations have negative views on the push for LGBTQ rights.5 Homophobia is thus tied up with anti-European sentiment. This varies between the two nations, however, as Georgia has a wider variety of media that allows for a diversity of opinion. This is changing, though, with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s increasing control over Georgian media.

Interestingly, though:

Georgia has adopted anti-discrimination legislation, on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, despite the deterioration of public opinion. In Russia, with a slight improvement in public opinion about homosexuality, a ban of ‘gay propaganda’ was adopted.”6

The Georgian Orthodox Church, which supported the protests surrounding the film’s Georgian premiere, is influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church and aggressively fights against the push for LGBTQ rights in Georgia.7 The clergy of the GOC also lead many demonstrators to attack activists marching for International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT).8 As such, And Then We Danced sits within a peculiar position within Georgian society, as it is a Swedish co-production, it would be labelled by conservative political forces as not being Georgian.

The Dances

The dancing occurs in both daylight and in the evening. By day, Merab dances with his fellow Georgians under the strict guidance of Aleko, and by evening, he begins to experiment with new moves. These dances are bathed under lights, be it from the moon, the warm glow of the streetlight or the strobe of the Bassiani night club. It’s these evening dances where Merab’s exploration of queerness occurs (beyond the late night tryst with Irakli of course).

The first late night dance occurs in his bedroom that he shares with his brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli), who often stays out late partying much to the chagrin of dance coach Aleko. The hard streetlight shines through the window creating a reticent atmosphere. He rehearses the moves in accordance to Aleko’s strict teachings – strong and not at all playful. The Adjarian duet, native to Batumi where Irakli is from, must be performed with purity and severity.

Merab’s dance coach, who seems to genuinely care for Merab’s career as a Georgian dancer, tells him that Georgian dance is based on masculinity. That in Georgian dance there is no room for weakness. Dancing in a feminine manner, curved and fluid, is equated with weakness. Yet Merab’s embracement of this movement coincides with his strengthening resolve.

Merab’s dance for Irakli, performed to Robyn’s “Honey”, is perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Earlier in their stay at the country house, the group dance to ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me,” perhaps a nod to the film’s status as a Swedish co-production. The friends are affectionate and intimate with how they touch each other. The later erotic scene takes place that evening. Merab’s “Honey” dance functions as a form of foreplay to the later sex scene. As friends are inside, piled into beds, with another sleeping on a couch in the sunroom, Merab dances for Irakli. Merab is topless and wears his Papakha as wig. Once a part of the traditional dress, now co-opted as a camp wig. His arms bend and bound to the beat as Robyn sings “every colour and every taste; every breath that whispers your name.” His hands caress his waist as his body moves more fluidly. This queer performance is a far cry from Aleko’s teachings. As the number ramps up in intensity, as Merab gets closer to Irakli, the scene cuts suddenly to back at the boulder, with the two young men smoking.

The choice of Robyn’s “Honey” makes me feel that this film is more than just a taboo romance. Robyn was one of many songs experimented with during the scene’s filming, so its use is a non-intentional yet fortuitous inclusion.9 The choreography itself was improvised:

He just played the song. And I was like, okay, let’s dance. It was really improvised. The final scene, we had the choreography and I had some points. And basically, I had the beginning, and when it’s becoming like more a mix between Georgian and contemporary dance, I didn’t have the whole choreography, just a few points that I knew that I had to do these two steps. And then the rest of the dance was improvisation.10

And yet, the song’s use thematically connects to Merab’s artistic self-discovery and rejection of his traditional teachings. “Honey” is a song primarily about self-love. Robyn is loved by many in the queer community, with tracks “Dancing On My Own” and “With Every Heartbeat” often dubbed queer bangers. The album was released at the time of the film’s production and allows for a unique resonance with a global queer audience. She describes the song as representing a place she found inside herself “after feeling like shit for a long time.”11 The song is about returning to a position when she enjoyed making music again12 — an apt choice for a character discovering a new love for dancing. The song exudes an “emotional ambivalence… that reflects the time and effort spent trying to figure out how exactly to say something.”13 The synth sounds add “desperation to the come-hither lyrics.”14

Robyn describes “Honey” (both the song and the album of the same name) as being a “place of curiosity and sensuality, a place that’s very soft and free.”15 The album has been largely interpreted as being about the personal responsibility for one’s own healing,16 of sadness, euphoria and respite,17 a queer album being “basted in tears and lube”18 of “maximum sadness, felt as the bedrock of absolute joy”19 and full of heartbreak and despondency.20 The album is described by Robyn herself as a “a diary in grief.”21

Rather than starting from melodies and lyrics, Robyn began writing “Honey” from her affective response to rhythm:

It’s not about getting to the chorus, it’s about something else, it’s about liking where you’re at. I wanted that to be a part of it as well, a different way of relating to the curve of a song. I think this time I explored that a little more.22

The subsequent lyrics draw out these yearnings for self-pleasure, not in a masturbatory sense, but one of contentedness.

No, you’re not gonna get what you need
But baby, I have what you want
Come get your honey
No, you’re not gonna get what you need
But baby, I have what you want
Come get your honey
I got your honey, baby

Every colour and every taste
Every breath that whispers your name
It’s like emeralds on the pavement
Every colour and every taste
Every breath that whispers your name
It’s like emeralds on the pavement
I got your honey, baby
At the heart of some kind of flower
Stuck in glitter, strands of saliva
Won’t you get me right where the hurt is?
At the heart of some kind of flower
Stuck in glitter, strands of saliva
Won’t you get me right where the hurt is?

And the waves come in and they’re golden
But down in the deep the honey is sweeter
(Ooh, it is sweeter, baby)
And the sun sets on the water
But down in the deep the current is stronger

So rather than just being a tune to support Merab’s dance for Arakli, it also unveils Merab’s own progression to a happier place; one where he himself feels more at peace with his burgeoning queerness.

The third evening dance is with new friend Mate (Mate Khidasheli), who he had previously locked eyes with on the bus. On their night out into the queer underbelly of Tbilisi, they end up at Bassiani, a major venue for the techno scene in Eastern Europe. Bassiani hosts Horoom Nights, huge LGBTQ dance nights that are connected to the city’s LGBTQ rights movement and seen as a safe space for Georgia’s queer population.23 Merab and Mate descend upon the pulsating Horoom dancefloor to Greenbeam and Leon’s “Tale VIII”; these are harder beats than what we have seen so far in the film. Once again, here he is embracing new forms of dancing; notice the bent, swinging elbows. Slow motion shots are interspersed, emphasizing how hard he is dancing; he slaps his face. Akin to the aforementioned scene involving Robyn, the scene abruptly cuts to Merab, disoriented, sitting in a public in the harsh morning light. Writing on the motif of dancefloors in queer cinema, Michael Sun sees movement as a freedom of expression. Concluding with remarks on Merab’s mid-film venture to a queer club, he sees Merab’s dancing as a:

Purge, purification, catharsis. But it isn’t just those things – it’s a calculated risk for survival.24

These cuts are rhythmically disorientating. The movement, of the camera, subjects and music, stop abruptly. Writing on the rhythmic corporeality of The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2015), Elena Benthaus draws on Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology to argue that moments of rhythmic disorientation allow for moments of clarity. She writes that “rhythmicality functions to both orientate screen and spectating bodies in the familiar and the regular beat of finding/knowing one’s way, while simultaneously dislocating them to feel out of place and out of line.”25 For Julian Henriques (2011, 58), “affect is expressed rhythmically — through relationships, reciprocations, resonances, syncopations and harmonies.”26 This rhythm connects the spectator to the camera movement and speed, the cuts, to the sound and Merab thrashing his body about. This increasing stylistic dislocation during Merab’s dance sequences immerse the spectator in Merab’s position as a queer Georgian dislocated from his community. The totality of Merab’s final dance, discussed below, reminds the viewer what it means to be oriented and content, now that Merab has found his way.

The final major dance sequence is his audition for Aleko and another unnamed elder of the ensemble. The position, ironically, has become vacant because a previous troupe member was violently bashed for being caught having sex with another man. It begins with a traditional sequence of moves. Merab is stiff, strong and looks ahead. He jumps and lands badly, leading for the elder to thank him and that they have seen enough. Yet, Merab persists, except this time slowly incorporating more fluid gestures. His back contorts and he dances in circles. The elder leaves in disgust saying that Merab is mocking Georgian dance. He twists his shoulders and arms, his hips sway. He jumps a second time and lands perfectly. This lengthy sequence incorporates moves that Merab slowly developed in his night-time dances. He curtsies for Aleko and leaves the audition space, rejecting the rigid masculinity imposed upon him. While his future in Georgia and as a dancer is unclear, he leaves the space a transformed young man. This audition is a tremendous embrace of new modes of expression, rejecting the constraints posed upon him. His arms and wrists switch from feminine and masculine positions. Hard and soft in a beautiful interpretation of Georgian dancing. Here, he is the surest of himself that he has ever been.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Clinton Glenn for his advice on Georgian queer politics.

Endnotes:

  1. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Taboo Romance Gets a Clumsy Workout in And Then There Were None,” AV Club. 4 February 2020, para. 2: https://film.avclub.com/taboo-romance-gets-a-clumsy-workout-in-and-then-we-danc-1841420250
  2. William Meyer, Elizabeth C. Costenbader, William A. Zule, David Otiashvili and Irma Kirtadze, “‘We are ordinary men’: MSM identity categories in Tbilisi, Georgia,” Culture, Health & Sexuality 12.8 (November 2010): p. 967.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Andrey Makarychev, & Sergey Medvedev, “Biopolitical art and the struggle for Sovereignty in Putin’s Russia” Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe., 26.2–3. 2018: 165–179; Joanna Mizielinska & Robert Kulpa, “Contemporary peripheries: Queer studies, circulation of knowledge and east/west divide” in De-centering western sexualities: Central and eastern European perspectives, Joanna Mizielinska & Robert Kulpa, eds. (London: Ashgate Press, 2011), 11-26; Richard CM Mole, “Nationalism and homophobia in central and eastern Europe” in The EU enlargement and Gay politics. Gender and politics, Koen Slootmaeckers, Heleen Touquet, & Peter Vermeersch eds. (London: Palgrave Macmillan): 99-121.
  5. Dan Healey, Homosexual desire in revolutionary Russia: The regulation of sexual and gender dissent. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2001).
  6. Tolkachev & Tolordava, 14.
  7. Adam Hug, Traditional religion and political power: Examining the role of the church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova. (London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2015).
  8. Tolkachev & Tolordava op. cit.
  9. Mark Alan Burger, “And Then We Danced Director Levan Akin on Revolutions and Robyn” Interview Magazine 10 February 2020, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/and-then-we-danced-director-levan-akin-on-revolutions-and-robyn; Claire White, “Taking Back the Culture: An Interview with And Then We Danced’s Levan Akin” Rough Cut Film 31 August 2019, https://roughcutfilm.com/2019/08/31/taking-back-the-culture-an-interview-with-and-then-we-danceds-levan-akin/
  10. Gelbakhiani quoted in Maria Lattila, “Nobody can dictate to you what you should be:” Interview With Levan Akin & Levan Gelbakhiani Of And Then We Danced,” Film Inquiry 13 March 2020, https://www.filminquiry.com/interview-levan-akin-gelbakhiani/
  11. Robyn quoted in Matthew Wade, “Honey is a place I found myself after feeling like shit for a long time.” The Star Observer 26 November 2018, https://www.starobserver.com.au/news/international-news-news/honey-place-found-inside-myself-after-feeling-like-shit-for-long-time-queer-icon-robyn/173605
  12. Jason King, “Robyn Breaks Down Every Song on Her New Album, HoneyPitchfork 24 October 2018, https://pitchfork.com/features/song-by-song/robyn-breaks-down-every-song-on-her-new-album-honey/
  13. Kayleigh Hughes, “Robyn Returns with the Lovely and Brutal Honey.” Consequence of Sound 29October 2018, para 2, https://consequenceofsound.net/2018/10/album-review-robyn-returns-with-the-lovely-and-brutal-honey/
  14. Alexis Petridis, “Robyn: Honey review – Beautifully Personal Pop Perfection.” The Guardian. 25 October 2018, para 3, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/oct/25/robyn-honey-review-pop
  15. Robyn quoted in Wade 2018
  16. King, op. cit.
  17. Daisy Jones, “The Enduring Cult of Robyn.” Vice 19 October: 2018, https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/negmwq/robyn-honey-interview-2018
  18. David Levesley, “Robyn’s Honey is the Sexiest and Saddest Album of the Year.” GQ 27 October  2018, para 7, https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/robyn-honey
  19. Jia Tolentino “Robyn has Returned and She Has What You Want,” The New Yorker 26 October 2018, para 7, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/honey-reviewed-robyn-has-returned-and-she-has-what-you-want
  20. Petridis op. cit.
  21. Robyn quoted in Laura Snapes, “How Robyn Transformed Pop” The Guardian 28 September 2018, para 47, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/sep/28/how-robyn-transformed-pop-music-honey
  22. Robyn quoted in Allison Gallagher, “Robyn and the Transcendental Power of Pop Music.” Tone Deaf 24 October 2018, para 15, https://tonedeaf.thebrag.com/robyn-honey-pop-music/
  23. Carmen Gray, “At this techno club, the party is political,” The New York Times 29 May 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/arts/music/bassiani-tbilisi-georgia.html
  24. Michael Sun, “Queer Cinema’s Love Affair with the Dancefloor,” Kill Your Darlings, 23 March 2020, para 34, https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/queer-cinemas-love-affair-with-the-dancefloor/
  25. Elena Benthaus, “Dis/Orientation: Rhythmic Bodies and Corporeal Orature in The Fits,” The International Journal of Screendance 9 (2018): 30
  26. Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (London; Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2011): 58.