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And Then We Danced
Courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures

Meet Levan Gelbakhiani, the star of Georgia’s gay forbidden love story

And Then We Danced is a devastating film set within the world of a Tbilisi dance troupe, with first-time actor and dancer Gelbakhiani giving an electrifying performance

“There is no sex in Georgian dance,” a ballet instructor yells early on in Levan Akin’s gay love story And Then We Danced. “This is not the Lambada!” Merab, a slender, bendy dancer played by Levan Gelbakhiani, heeds the advice: in practice sessions, Merab stiffens his limbs, adopts statuesque poses, and decreases eye contact with his female partner. Away from the rehearsal room, though, Merab seduces a male troupe member, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), to the sounds of “Honey” by Robyn. Merab is topless, in a wig, his hips swaying suggestively to Robyn’s high-tempo, fast-speaking verse – then the gyrating halts. The two men, completely still, gaze at each other, intimately, hypnotised by the moment, while the pulsating electronic drums replicate their rising heartbeats.

At Cannes, And Then We Danced received rave reviews and introduced a young, unknown cast to the world. Akin’s film was submitted by Sweden as its Oscar submission; at the Guldbagge Awards, Sweden’s version of the Oscars, it won four prizes, including Best Film and Best Actor for Gelbakhiani. But in Georgia, where there is supposedly no sex in their traditional dance, watching And Then We Danced became a political act. In November, violent protesters swarmed around theatres in Tbilisi and Batumi and attacked attendees. The film was removed from cinemas two days later.

Akin, a Swedish director with Georgian heritage, was inspired to write the script after witnessing footage of a Pride parade in Tbilisi in 2013. The event was attended by around 50 gay rights activists who were then harassed – and, in many cases, assaulted – by thousands of homophobic counter-demonstrators. So Akin commenced research into the world of Georgian ballet by interviewing young dancers, many of whom were friends with Gelbakhiani. The Instagram algorithm, in this case, played cinematic matchmaker.

“My Instagram profile came up as a suggestion,” Gelbakhiani tells me over Skype, from Tbilisi, a few days before the UK’s release. “Levan saw my pictures and followed me. Then the casting director called me in.” He laughs. “I said no five times.”

Scrolling through Gelbakhiani’s pre-fame Instagram history reveals a charismatic, carefree dancer with shaggy hair, a beard, and a penchant for tightrope walking. As Merab, he’s nimble, open, and naturally expressive with his body – even his resting positions involve contorting his limbs into unconventional angles. But Gelbakhiani’s flexibility extends to how he conveys emotions, whether it’s sadness or lust, with the pensiveness of his face. Remarkably, And Then We Danced is the actor’s first onscreen role, and it might not have happened had Akin and his team not pitched the movie for a sixth time.

“It’s not easy to do that kind of project in Georgia because of the environment. I was afraid of the reactions from society” – Levan Gelbakhiani

“It’s not easy to do that kind of project in Georgia because of the environment,” Gelbakhiani explains. “I was afraid of the reactions from society. Plus, when you agree to a project like that, you’re not alone – other people will have to be ready for questions and attention.” So the actor consulted his friends and family. “When I got support from them, I didn’t have anything to lose.”

For the shoot, bodyguards were required due to death threats. Several scenes were filmed in secret as locations proved difficult to secure. The cast and crew, some of whom couldn’t be named in the credits for their own safety, had to pretend the story involved French tourists visiting Tbilisi. The choreographer, for instance, is still anonymous. It sounds tense but Gelbakhiani says otherwise. “To be honest, I didn’t feel any stress. We were just focusing on the work.”

The protests in November were another matter, though. Gelbakhiani was travelling to LA with Akin on the night it started. “We were on a plane, in a bubble, and nervous about the release. It’s stressful to have images in your mind about how people are trying to block cinemas.” Outside the Georgian theatres, anti-LGBTQ+ groups fought with riot police and attempted to scare off members of the public. First-person reports suggest that the security was ineffective. However, the screenings themselves sold out entirely during those three days. “People wanted to see the film. I get so many messages on social media from people who are really supportive towards the cast and crew. We get a lot of messages from minority groups. (The response) wasn’t only negative. It’s kind of 50/50.”

The artistic director of the Tbilisi International Film Festival told the New York Times that gay-themed movies by Xavier Dolan and Pedro Almodóvar can screen without controversy – what provoked conservative and religious groups was that And Then We Danced involved traditional Georgian dance. “When it comes to foreign films, it’s easier, because they’re not Georgians,” Gelbakhiani says. “In our case, it’s local and real. Most of the time, they know about these issues which are pretty rooted in society. But they don’t want to see that.”

Despite the news stories around And Then We Danced, the film itself paints Tbilisi as an idyllic place to hang out. To be honest, it often is a hangout movie: Merab and his vibrant, beautiful friends spend more time smoking, drinking, and flirting in picturesque locations than performing ballet. They eat constantly – fresh bread and mouth-watering fruits are ravished – while maintaining enviable physiques. But homophobia is constantly around the corner. Alongside the boy-meets-boy storyline, Merab auditions for a place in Georgia’s national ballet – the opening is due to a performer who was outed, and thus blacklisted.

“Georgian dance is a really masculine world. It’s based on ‘warrior’ stuff. The men always lead, and that’s a sad part of that” – Levan Gelbakhiani

The irony is that Kintouri, a dance performed by Merab and Irakli, was straightwashed by Georgian culture. “Kintouri comes from a queer community in Georgia,” Gelbakhiani says. “Then it was ‘fixed’. Well, not ‘fixed’, but now it’s a more masculine dance. It was not like that before.” Throughout the film, Merab is ordered to be hypermasculine, and Mary (Ana Javakishvili), his dance partner – and sort of girlfriend – is tasked with a secondary role. “Georgian dance is a really masculine world. It’s based on ‘warrior’ stuff. The men always lead, and that’s a sad part of that.”

Whenever a film involves a dance number, that scene is nearly always the highlight. For obvious reasons, And Then We Danced contains numerous contenders, including the catharsis of Gelbakhiani expressing his more “feminine” moves in front of stuffy instructors. Similarly, in the Robyn sequence, Merab’s movements are free, fluid, and guided by the music. “We tried ‘Dancing on My Own’ and ‘Monument’, but then Levan played ‘Honey’. The choreography was improvised. That scene is live.”

Another choice needle-drop is when a houseful of partygoers jump around to ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me”. Robyn’s electropop is arguably for cool, sexy people, whereas even uncool, unsexy people can happily hum along to “Dancing Queen” or “Mamma Mia”. Benny Andersson coproduced a past film of Akin’s, and his son coproduced And Then We Danced. “ABBA is really popular in Georgia with young kids and older generations,” Gelbakhiani notes. “They know ABBA. It’s not just a random song – it has meaning for society, and shows the union between these two groups.”

Since the film’s received such international acclaim, have conservative politicians in Georgia been forced to change their behaviour? “We’d need four hours to talk about that,” Gelbakhiani laughs. “It’s complicated!” Still, he tries to summarise it for me: the Georgian government may have provided security at the premiere, but it was under severe pressure and awareness that the world was watching. The politicians didn’t write a statement of support. “(A lot of) Georgians don’t like the government. They do shitty things. It’s like a Pride parade. It’s not illegal to be gay in Georgia. There are laws, but it’s not working. The government is not supportive towards minority groups.”

Gelbakhiani, to no one’s surprise, has been receiving movie offers and has a number of upcoming projects he’s not allowed to mention for now. In terms of dream directors, he’s posted a screenshot of Lars von Trier’s Dogville on his Instagram – well, it worked with Akin – and names Wes Anderson as top of his list. Anyway, And Then We Danced is certainly a supreme calling card for filmmakers to take notice of Gelbakhiani, but it also tempts cinephiles with expendable income to pay a visit to Tbilisi.

“The techno scene gives us so many possibilities. It’s one space where everyone can be together without any violence” – Levan Gelbakhiani

After all, Merab and his buddies spend a wild night drinking and partying the night away at Basiani, a club in Tbilisi famed for its inclusivity. “Basiani isn’t just a techno club,” Gelbakhiani explains. “It’s a movement for minority groups. There are special queer events called Horoom. People from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and neighbouring countries come to express themselves.

“The techno scene gives us so many possibilities. It’s one space where everyone can be together without any violence. It’s a mix of minority and majority groups. It’s a friendly environment, not just a techno club where you go dancing. Basiani and Khidi are the clubs that are really friendly with minority groups. It helps people to mix, and to talk to each other, and to discuss stuff.” He adds, “And to, of course, dance.”

And Then We Danced opens in UK cinemas on March 13