A Conversation with Levan Gelbakhiani: About Dancing, Cinema and Future Plans

I have been trying to record this interview for several years. I tried to contact Levan several times after the announcement of the movie And Then We Danced, but each time without success. A busy schedule and the complicated homophobic background were the main hindering factors.

3 years later, when Levan agreed to an interview with the newly created Aprili Media, I was honestly surprised. We met in Zoom, because he does not live in Georgia right now. I approached the interview process with extreme caution, I didn’t want anything to make him uncomfortable. However, everything happened the other way around — in about 10 minutes, Levan was completely freely, emotionally telling me about his childhood and adolescence, like a long-time acquaintance.

In this interview, you will get to know Levan not only as an actor, but also as a dancer, a boy of the Gen Z generation, in whose life specific moments played a turning role. You will learn how they convinced him to play in one of the most famous films in Georgia and what obstacles he faced during filming.

A Childhood Immersed in Art

Levan was born in Chiatura and lived there until the 5th grade. He specifically says that he “loves Chiatura very, very much” and remembers it well. His mother worked in the cultural center of the city, so he was involved in this field from an early age.

His mother took him to piano lessons, sometimes to the choir, to solfeggio. It turns out that he has been attending Georgian dances since he was 4 years old, and he even managed to learn ballroom dancing. He was 6 years old when a theater studio was created in the cultural center and he started going there.

“I really liked it and I realized that this was what I wanted to do” – Levan tells me and adds, despite this, it breaks my heart that I didn’t have other experiences in my childhood and adolescence – “Now I’m not a big fan of my profession. I want to have other skills and interests. But I have been so immersed in this field for my whole life that I didn’t even think about anything else.”

After a few years, he moved to Tbilisi with his mother and brother. His mother started working in Marjanishvili theater, and Levan’s connection with the field of art became closer.

“It was in Marjanishvili Theater when I first took a part in a play, when I was 12-13 years old. Kote Tolordava, Eka Nizharadze, Nino Gomarteli and Tamuna Bukhnikashvili participated in the play. Tamuna Bukhnikashvili played the role of my character Merabi’s mother in the movie And Then We Danced. I have had friendship and work experience with Tamuna since childhood, I love her very much. This was my first play.

Then I went to the casting at Sokhumi theater and played in 2 plays in the attic of Marjanishvili. At the same time, I went to a theater studio”, – this is how he recalls his teenage years.

His mother advised him to go to one of the workshops. He thought they were acting master classes, but it turned out to be dance, contact improvisation. There, Levan met a Swedish choreographer and “very important people in his life”. He got to know the students of Chabukiani Choreography School and realized where he wanted to continue his studies.

“When I met the ballet school children at this workshop, it was a game-changing moment in my life. I told my mother that I wanted to go with them. This school had a ballet and theater department. I got into the theater. When I started studying there, my world suddenly changed. I am very grateful for that.”

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Photo: Theatrical troupe of the Academy of Arts

The Road from a Rejected Theater Student to the Big Screen

“I wanted to enroll in the Theatrical University, but I couldn’t”, – this is how he starts talking about his career.

He passed the exam confidently. He explains that he does not have big ideas about himself, but he was not bad compared to others. Therefore, when he did not find his name in the list of those who passed, he was shocked.

“I’m such a person that I can’t keep quiet. If I see that something is happening unfairly, I will definitely scream. Afterwards, I went to talk to them, I asked for the videos, which of course they didn’t show me. I started arguing, if those people passed to the next level, how am I so bad that I didn’t get a chance in the second round? Chancellor told me — you know, your voice is very childish. I was like, I’m 17 years old, of course it will be childish, I haven’t “flourished” yet. He also told me that my rhythm wasn’t very good and I was very surprised, I had graduated from such a school… In short, I couldn’t get into the drama faculty at the theater university.

He had applied to another faculty of the same university, with the expectation that in one year he would transfer to the drama faculty through internal mobility. However, he devoted time and energy to work on himself and develop.

In the second year of the university, he faced a problem, he could not pay the tuition fees, so he took a year off. It was at this time that Levan Akin’s movie came around.

Here, we stop talking about the film for a while and return to the discussion of dance. Levan explains that he is not a professional dancer of Georgian dance, nor does he claim to be. He doesn’t even feel a special connection and “he doesn’t get up or dance on his birthday or at a wedding.” But he really likes it when he looks at Samaya, Jeyran, Khorumi, Ossetian, he is attracted by lines and symmetry. At the same time, he “doesn’t like the Mtiuluri and Adjarian dances that much”.

“The modern dances are the closest to me. One of my favorite disciplines is contact improvisation, which is built entirely on impulses. You have no pre-calculation, no choreography.

Everything depends on you and your partner, physical trust, touch, listening to each other, how you feel the environment, music. There may be no music at all, and the rhythm of touching each other in the silence, breathing, or the sounds coming from the street.

I like such experimental, free spaces more than existing trends. Improvisation is my favorite part of dance.”

This is how Levan Gelbakhiani answered my question about which dance he likes the most and what he feels when he dances.

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Roman Valynkin

“Within the framework of the Tbilisi Contemporary Dance and Experimental Art Festival, invited foreign and Georgian artists do collaborative projects. In different years, I had the chance to work with them, which gave me great experience. In our country, this style of art is not encouraged, which is why there is a rather old-fashioned view of dance. The existing spaces are facing many problems. That’s why it was important for me to get to know this foreign taste as well,” says Levan.

We continue the conversation by discussing personal life and experiences. Levan recalls cases of homophobic calls and attempts of offending him. But he emphasizes that he does not pay attention to this and does not get upset, because it is the problem of homophobes, not his.

“I don’t think I’m weak and I can’t resist someone,” he says.

And Still, How Did They Dance?

As you can see, we follow the topics in a chaotic manner during the interview, although this does not prevent us from discussing everything that interests us. We avoided the topic of the filming process several times, but in the end we talked about it in detail.

“There are several stories of my selection. One is that when Levan Akin was “scrolling” Instagram, he came across my profile. I had some videos of dancing, exercising. Perhaps he was looking for someone who was physically ready to dance and at the same time could act. Maybe at some point he saw this combo in me,” says Levan and continues the story of how he refused to participate in the film several times and how they managed to get him to agree.

When I asked the reason for the refusal, he replied:

“My political knowledge was never deep. After this film, I started self-education in terms of politics and activism. Before that I had zero interest at all.

I used to shout and protest about small injustices in private spaces, but I never had the goal of speaking out. I didn’t have any political views and I wasn’t interested in anything so much that I was even in an advertisement clip of the Georgian Dream. I stand and clap. That’s the level I was at.”

Therefore, in response to the offer of the film crew of And Then We Danced, he said that he was not ready and did not want to participate in a film about a gay couple. He knew what processes would follow this, and this was not his field of interest. However, the film crew did not give up so easily, and as Levan says, they tried to communicate several times – they called and tried to contact him through different people.

“Then there was such news that one of the representatives called me and told me that a foreign director has come to Georgia and he wants to meet with you. They didn’t tell me anything else – about what, how, in what way. We were at Fabrika, in Moulin. We sat down and Levan came.

We got to know each other and when they started talking about the project, I was like, wait a second, I already said no to this. However, when you are face to face, the energies are a little different.”

And Then W Danced და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ ლევან გელბახიანი
Photo: And Then We Danced

In the end, the director, Levan Akin, convinced him to shoot only a teaser, which was needed to get funding.

“We made a 10-minute teaser and in the process I realized that I really wanted it and I couldn’t say no to it,” he said. We made the teaser in a very small group, there were only 2-3 people behind the camera. At some point, I realized that I was happy and motivated, I was feeling very good, my self-esteem also increased. Many factors outweighed my refusal”.

His decision was opposed by his family and relatives. Levan says that barriers make him angry, so he agreed to the film.

“It was also an echo of my queerness that you should do it. If you analyze little by little how much effect all this can have on you, your community, society… Then I realized that it might be worth doing all this. Well, that’s how I called and told him to do it.”

Friends, film crew, director, producers warned him about possible dangers. Due to the obstacles in the process of filming, Levan himself expected negative reactions, but he did not realize the scale until the day the trailer was released.

“The whole process went in such a way that I was never ready. Everything happened very quickly. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t think about it, I didn’t realize it.”

Levan tells us that during the shooting process, the agreed locations were blocked the day before, and the reason was the newly started renovation. The camera crew was receiving threats on the phone.

The problem was to find an ensemble that would cooperate with them. In an interview with The Guardian in 2019, Levan Akin said that the reason for this was the head of the artistic troupe of the Georgian National Ballet, Nino Sukhishvili. The director said that when Sukhishvili was approached for cooperation, he received an answer – “There are no gays in Georgian dance!” — which resulted in pressure on dancers who wanted to participate in the film and attempts to block them.

Sukhishvili herself then called these accusations false , but she emphasized that historically they did not have “a man of a different orientation” in the ensemble. Sukhishvili also claimed that she did not have a homophobic position, but in subsequent interviews she spread a number of homophobic narratives. For example, she said that Georgian dance is “masculine” and she cannot imagine how a homosexual should dance it.

Despite this, they still danced. Levan tells us that they quietly found a choreographer who agreed to cooperate on the condition of staying anonymous.

“There were similar problems with musicians. Whatever music we used in the film, most of them rejected us. At first they agreed with us and then they refused. For example, there is one scene where the characters are singing in the car. We were singing a different song altogether, and the final product sounds like a different song. We had a post-edit on the sound and rewrote the melody and lyrics so that it matched the movements, and then we recorded it in a separate studio.”

We continue the conversation by discussing his personal emotions during the shooting process. He says that he was worried because he had no experience and it was his first film. Friendly environment helped a lot.

“Bachi Valiashvili and I are best friends. I love him very much, you won’t find a better person than Bachi. I knew Ana Javakhishvili from school and we participated in various plays together. I love her a lot. The cast was close and we had zero issues with that, everything was perfect. Both the process and the work were very nice, it was interesting”.

ლევან გელბახიანი And Then We Danced და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ
Photo: Still from / And Then We Danced

Special Forces at Cinemas and the Oscar Campaign

Let’s remember what happened before the premiere of the film in Georgia. Violent homophobes gathered in the city center, which the pro-Russian businessman and now a politician, Levan Vasadze divided into tens and hundreds, assigned leaders to them, and announced violence with belts and crooks. Guram Phalavandishvili sometimes promised to turn on the light in the movie hall during the screening, sometimes to damage the generator and try to disrupt the premiere this way.

Despite organizing and public calls for violence, they were not punished. Citizens entering the cinema were thrown stones at and insulted. The special forces stood there and, as the Ministry of Internal Affairs said, protected the “safety” and “freedom of expression” of all citizens.

“The whole process of setting the date of the premiere was very difficult. It’s like that when the State Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs is watching you and all your calls are monitored. They are trying to destroy you from all sides – a few days before the premiere, the movie was uploaded on YouTube. This was also very funny and strange, because the first draft was brought out of the laboratory, and the editing was done in France.

Cinemas themselves had to cancel all screenings, which is a huge financial loss. They tried from all sides to create small conflicts between us and cinemas”.

Levan recalls that, simultaneously with the premiere of the film in Georgia, the film crew had to go to America for the Oscar campaign, because And Then We Danced was nominated. Those days, which were the most important for his career, he spent in stress, feeling guilty.

“We were at the airport when these lives, mobilization started. We had a 15-hour flight and watched everything from an  awful airplane internet, which showed everything in blocks and did not load. We arrived in the US devastated. Such stress, which we received then, we did not receive anywhere, during any rally or raid.

I felt guilty that I was not in Tbilisi and my friends and supporters were hurt, had to go through all this. I had this feeling – why am I not there? As if I ran away and left them to this crowd. Such stress created big mental problems for me”.

He is happy with the fact that the premiere took place. He says that this is the result of community solidarity. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve even after that. The threats continued.

“There were many and all kinds of threats. Just choose which one you want me to talk about. When I returned to Georgia, there were some physical tensions when I would go somewhere with my friends and someone would shout: “heyyy, boy.” I am so strong inside these things don’t affect me. Yes, it annoys me, but it is not crucial”.

Attempts at online bullying continued, they wrote to his mother as well.

“All this was so new at that moment that it didn’t have an impact there and at that moment, then when time passed, when it settled down and I boiled it down, it had had an impact.”

July 5 and Political Homophobia

On July 5, 2021, homophobes mobilized by the Patriarchate of Georgia and the pro-Russian groups raided the offices of Tbilisi Pride and the Shame Movement activists and harassed about 50 journalists. Lexo Lashkarava, the operator who was beaten that day, died later.

On July 6, citizens gathered on Rustaveli Avenue to condemn the violence. The environment was definitely not safe, because the perpetrators had surrounded the area around the parliament and were throwing stones and pieces of iron. Levan attended the rally.

I asked him, personally, in the background of homophobic aggression against him, how he risked going to Rustaveli that day.

“I felt emotionally safe because everyone was there. I felt a sense of unity. It was so emotional for me that I had no fears. It was a rational fear that some orc would come at me, but the anger was so great that it overshadowed the fears.”

We also talked about political homophobia. Levan believes that the authorities are spreading these narratives because it’s the only tool they have left to maintain power.

“It is still early. Election period will come and then we will see the phrases “death to all gays”. This is really the only tool, otherwise they have no barriers, so what should they do?

What else should Irakli Gharibashvili do, except to curse gays and protect the “sanctity of the family”?! Who protects the sanctity of the family? If we have violent men in the parliament, do they protect sanctity? “They have a fight every Monday,” says Levan.

He also explains that this narrative works because the Georgian society still does not have the acceptance of the queer community. He emphasizes that the government, instead of working on increasing the visibility of queers, is doing the opposite.

“In every announcement, we hear “gay Europe”, “gay America”, “they want to make our children gay”. At the same time, everyone wants to send their child to Europe. This dissonance is typical for Georgian politics.

Things happen every day, words have no value, apologies have no value, and politicians are not found to be true to their word. They speak whatever they want, because they know that they have no one that will ask them for anything. When Dito Samkharadze curses at us from the balcony, we click on Facebook”.

“Our government is as good as us. No matter how many claims we have about higher matters, we cannot escape it. We live in a society where double standards are a big part of everyday life.”

And Finally, Some Spoilers

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Photo: The Face

Levan now lives in New York. Recently, he was in Italy, where the filming of a full-length film was completed. He himself plays the main role.

“This is exclusive, I haven’t told anyone, I haven’t even written a post on Instagram. The film is a co-production of Switzerland and Italy,” Levan tells us.

In order to avoid spoilers, I will tell you very briefly that his character works in an agency that offers people human relationships as a service. The story takes place in extreme climatic conditions: when the earth has become so hot that the inhabitants changed day and night.

I will also tell you that he will start working on another project in the spring, which will be a co-production between the Netherlands and France. The film is about a historical character – an artist who escaped from the Soviet Union. Levan also plays the main role here.

At the end of the interview, I asked Levan whether we will see him again in Georgian cinema, to which he replied:

“I will play in Georgian cinema with great pleasure, if the screenplay is interesting”.