Lisabi Fridell, courtesy Music Box Films

Rejected by Its Home Country, This Georgian Dance Film Has Become a Surprise Hit

Director Levan Akin's new movie may have been rejected by the country where it was filmed, but elsewhere in the world, moviegoers are embracing the film like a traditional Georgian dancer, arms raised and elbows bent in an enthusiastic display of bravado.

And Then We Danced opens in nine more North American markets this weekend, on the heels of successful openings in New York, Chicago and other cities, and a slew of festival screenings around the globe.

Just not in Georgia, the native country of Akin's grandparents, where he filmed his low-budget surprise-hit dance film.

The film was dropped from the Tbilisi Film Festival last fall after massive protests at the premiere turned violent. Police in riot gear separated filmgoers from far-right activists and angry Orthodox priests, all because the film depicts a same-sex relationship between two dancers auditioning for Georgia's national dance company.

Yet the movie earned a standing ovation last year at the Cannes Film Festival. And Sweden, the country that welcomed Akin's parents as immigrants, submitted And Then We Danced to the Oscars as its entry for Best International Feature.

"I'm so grateful to Sweden," says Akin. "It means so much that Sweden nominated a film that wasn't filmed here and was filmed in another language." The Swedish Film Institute also contributed funding for the film, along with ABBA founder Benny Andersson and Mathilde Dedye, a French producer married to Swedish director who Akin heard loved dance.

Two young men and one young women in black shirts; the men look at the camera and the woman looks down at an angle.

Anka Gujabidze, courtesy Music Box Films

Akin had been working in Swedish film and television for about a decade when he saw footage of Tbilisi's 2013 gay pride parade. The event drew far more protesters then participants, and the brave marchers "were just kids," Akin says. He wanted to tell a story about growing up in Georgia today, and decided that dance would provide the best lens.

As a kid growing up in Stockholm, Akin knew dance played an outsized role in his ancestral country. (It's is the homeland of Balanchine, after all, and former American Ballet Theatre principal Nina Ananiashvili now runs the state ballet company.) He loved watching Soviet folk dance competitions on television. "Orson Welles was the narrator, which was crazy. I would always cheer when Georgia came on," Akin says. As a teenager, he trained with former Martha Graham dancer Maher Benham.

Two young men and an older woman sit on a bus, the two on the sides resting their heads on the shoulders of the young man in the middle.

Lisabi Fridell, courtesy of Music Box Films

Akin found his star, contemporary dancer Levan Galbakhiani, on Instagram. Like his character Merab, Galbakhiani comes from a poor family and waits tables when he's not rehearsing or performing. (That's his restaurant shown in And Then We Danced; it was open for business during filming.) Bachi Valisvili, who plays Merab's love interest Irakli, is a theater actor who studied traditional Georgian dance as a kid, and brushed up for the film.

It's somewhat rare to see a dance film that takes folk dance seriously and that examines how economic privilege too often determines who gets to be a dancer. "It's the case in so many countries, including Georgia and England and the United States. To be able to pursue art, you have to come from a rich background," Akin says. "It is a privilege to be able to say, 'I am going to be an actor,' or 'I am going to be a dancer.' " And although the movie has drawn comparisons to Call Me By Your Name, Akin maintains that this is a coming of age movie, not a "coming out" movie.

A religious ceremony of some sort where a young man and woman, in fancy white outfits, have crowns placed on their heads. They are surrounded by people holding candles.

Lisabi Fridell, courtesy Music Box Films

Towards the film's end, as Merab begins to imagine life beyond Tbilisi, he experiments with his own modern/folk fusion that riffs on the traditional, hyper-masculine Georgian dance. Akin was able to credit contemporary choreographer Natia Chikvaidze for her work on those scenes, but not the choreographer who staged the traditional Georgian dances, for fear that person would get fired. (None of the film's dancers are members of Georgia's national company.)

As Akin depicts it, Georgia's national company is run by homophobic tyrants, especially the director of the junior ensemble. "Georgian audiences are saying we could have exaggerated him even more. They really do rage and throw things at the dancers," Akin says.

In his follow-up film, Akin plans to focus on Zaza, a female dancer mocked in And Then We Danced for being of Armenian descent. It's not clear yet what role dance will play in the sequel, but the art form will continue to inspire Akin's work.

"I love Mats Ek and Alexander Ekman," Akin says. "I'm still friends with many dancers and I try to see everything at Dansen Hus. [The contemporary dance venue in Stockholm.] I love dance."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021