An awkward computer programmer (Ikechukwu Ufomadu) learns to dance to impress his next-door neighbor (Rachel Wyman). Named after a dance from the Afro-Haitian Vodou tradition, Yanvalou is pure visual storytelling through image and action. Featuring playful and sensual choreography by
master Haitian dancer Julio Jean and music by Evans Seney, Fritz Vivien, and Jean-Mary Brignol, Yanvalou was inspired by a personal struggle to connect with human beings—and my own body—within the conflicting cultures of the dance studio and digital startup environments.
Commissioned for The Bureau of Creative Works with support from NEW INC, Gibney, and the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. Production still photos by An Rong Xu.
2018 ZINEBI x B.A.D. Bilbao Festival of Contemporary Theatre and Dance, Bilbao, SPAIN
2018 Festival International de Videodanza, Mexico City, MEXICO
2018 Jumping Frames International Dance Video Festival, Kowloon, HONG KONG ✝
2018 Capitol Dance & Cinema Festival, Washington DC, USA
2018 Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, Middlebury, Vermont, USA
2018 The Magic Hour No. 1, Kinfolk 94, New York, USA
2018 Cascadia Dance & Cinema Festival, Vancouver International Film Centre, CANADA *
2018 Courts de danse, La Jetée, Clermont-Ferrand, FRANCE
2017 Cucalorus Film Festival, Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
* Audience Choice Award
✝ In Competition
Featuring Ike Ufomadu, Rachel Wyman, and Julio Jean
Written, Directed, Produced by Angeline Gragasin
Executive Produced by The Bureau of Creative Works
Cinematography by Tine DiLucia
Edited by Sebastian Diaz-Aguirre
Production Design by Ryan O'Toole
Costume Design by Angela Harner
Color by John Kersten
Poster Design by Alma Charry
Full credits on IMDb
It’s easy to recognize that big feelings such as terror, sorrow, and love are inseparable from their physical cues.
We know these feelings in ourselves not as isolated mental events, but as a cold gnawing in the guts; a constricted heart; a sense of lightness and expansion beyond the body’s borders. Feelings work on and through the body—we feel them. And since we feel them so strongly in our fleshy, sensing parts, they can also be uniquely resistant to the powers of what we call “mind.” Attempting to squelch big feelings with the cool language of reason and rationality is often futile. We may mentally reiterate how irrational we’re being, or try to convince ourselves that the feeling is ridiculous, overblown, vain or unnecessary, but the feeling remains unmoved. Whatever arguments are to be made about the social and psychological construction of identity, we are at least partly biological beings, organisms navigating and responding to the world through bodily processes, which give rise to feelings. So to be altered emotionally, psychologically and spiritually is also to be altered physically—in both microscopic and observable realms, by molecules and muscles, bones and blood.
This, at least, is the premise of dance/movement therapy (DMT), a field I stumbled upon after some years of dancing professionally—but not so professionally that I was beyond side-hustling and living by the skin of my teeth. DMT has more in common with verbal psychotherapy than physical therapy, in that its purpose is not to correct body mechanics per se, but to explore the psyche by way of the body. At its core is the idea that psychological transformation occurs first and foremost on a bodily level. If our emotional wiring and our feeling experiences are in the body, it follows that movement accesses and transforms this wiring in a way that goes much deeper than free-associating from the fainting couch.
I was attracted to dance therapy, and subsequently entered the field, because I fully believe in this assertion. My own experiences of transformation always begin with my body moving and being moved.
If, as some say, there is life-changing magic to be found in tidying up, then I can confidently declare the life-changing power of learning to undulate one’s spine. Long before I knew anything about dance therapy as a profession, I watched my first teacher of Haitian dance forms demonstrate Yanvalou, and had a hunch that I was about to be changed. To an observer, Yanvalou is a simple dance. The mover’s posture is one of soft flexion in the knees and slight forward bend in the waist, as if perpetually mid-way to sitting in a chair. The feet step forward, step together, step forward. Arms are held open at wingspan, or relaxed with hands resting on thighs or knees. And, Yanvalou’s most distinctive feature: the rolling, rippling spinal undulation, a constant undercurrent.
Dance scholar Yvonne Daniel writes,
In yanvalu, dancers allow the entire body to simultaneously relax and work; the dance movement follows the normal inhalation and exhalation of breathing, but expands the breath movement throughout the entire body toward a series of undulations on a vertical axis.The undulation is what makes Yanvalou infinitely more difficult to do than an observer might expect, watching the placid expression of one deep in the dance, undulating into oblivion. One reason for this is that the movement forces the body to work in polarities. To achieve Yanvalou’s undulation, as Daniel suggests, the body works hard yet remains completely relaxed, is equally supple and strong, and allows a free flow of energy within specific boundaries.
As with other circular actions such as chanting and spinning, Yanvalou’s continuous undulation shifts one’s state of concentration inward, to the center. And indeed, as my teacher explained it, everything about Yanvalou is circular. Its path of energy moves up from the floor through the bottom of the mover’s feet, courses through the legs, pelvis, spine, neck, and out the top of the head, returning to the earth to be pulled back up again through the feet. This cycling and recycling of energy makes the dance personal: one will learn the body anew. Specifically, wherever one feels pain after dancing Yanvalou, pain beyond post-exertion achiness, is where the circularity of the undulation was blocked from moving through. Yanvalou shows where the body holds too tightly.
Over the years of dancing Yanvalou, I have come to realize that this kind of pain (perhaps all pain) hints at more than “just” flesh.
I think such a belief comes with the territory of seeing the human being as a complex continuum of body and mind. It would be probably be easier to believe that we are immaterial souls housed within meat bags; pain and sickness could be reduced to flesh. But mental events and physical processes do not exist in isolation. Boundaries between the visible and invisible aspects of body and psyche are soft and mysterious at best, and while we have examined ourselves inside-out and learned much about our brains and body systems, much of the interplay between psyche and soma continues to remain unknowable.
Just as my body pain makes its way into my psyche and thoughts (“Damn, my neck hurts!”), the pain of stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, and other bad feelings are diffused and held in my being, my body. Occasionally in the midst of dancing, I will be overcome by big, immediate feelings—if I am consciously upset about something, I might cry. But more often, those feelings are most present afterwards, in muscles that tightened to keep too much from spilling out in the moment. Either way, it’s while dancing and immediately afterwards that I am often most in touch with this pain.
The physicality of Yanvalou is inseparable from its symbolism within the larger context of Haitian Vodou.
Learning dances of the various nations and spirits of Vodou has taught me that any dance is defined less by its steps than by the energy and attitude that move it: the expression of Yanvalou is not performative and outwardly-directed, but internal, personal, reverent, restrained. Yanvalou is supplication, embodied prayer—after all, its primary function is to call and honor certain major gods within the Vodou pantheon. It is predominantly associated with the most ancient Rada family spirit, Damballah, who is symbolized by the snake. Damballah is the New World iteration of Da, a god of the Fon people of Benin—formerly Dahomey. Dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham describes Damballah as “symbol of continuity, the roundness of time, of indestructibility by time.” African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson writes of Da Ayida Hwedo, the rainbow serpent of the sky who combines male and female aspects to represent sexual totality.
My favorite is a Dahomean explanation of Da, recounted to the anthropologist Melville Herskovits more as an abstract principle than a deity: “The vodu Da is more than a snake. It is a living quality expressed in all things that are flexible, sinuous, and moist; all things that fold and refold and coil, and do not move on feet, though sometimes these things that are Da go through the air. The rainbow has these qualities, and smoke, and so have the umbilical cord, and some say the nerves, too.” I can’t say what exactly about this touches me, but it is the description that comes closest to my feeling of Yanvalou (and by extension, Damballah), both as an observer and a dancer. It gets at the essence, the polarities contained within the movement and the deity it honors: concrete and abstract, terrestrial and cosmic, corporeal and mystical.
And perhaps polarities are the key in my own transformation since seeing Yanvalou danced for the first time. Because while I may have intellectually embraced complexity and contradiction as part of the human condition, I didn’t feel it on a molecular level until I began dancing Yanvalou. It has been a lesson in holding polarities simultaneously: a process that began tangibly in my body as I practiced the undulation eventually rippled into my patterns of thinking and being. Yanvalou opened me to the possibility of embodying fluidity and strength, flowing within containment, and feeling at times boundless and removed from time yet deeply within the here-and-now of my own body. I have come to experience my body concretely in all its pain and pleasure, while also sensing that much of what or why or who I am remains unknown to me. It is difficult to hold complexity and contradiction as pure thought, but in movement I feel it in my feet and belly, in muscle memory. The more I do it, the more I feel it. And, for the sake of this argument, feeling it makes it real enough for me.
My point throughout this piece is that dancing and moving changes us, in large and small ways. There is a personal, exploratory side of this process, as I have discussed here. But I cannot close without speaking of another important aspect of dance, present both in Yanvalou as it is danced in ceremony and Yanvalou the film. It is an aspect that is easily taken for granted, because it is often simply there, present and warming: the community.
In ceremonial context, Yanvalou is where personal prayer and reflection unfold en masse.
One is free to be deep inside oneself and also with others—it is not performance but the creation of solace within group action. So, too, in Yanvalou the film, the Man finds his solace within a community of movers. From a world that is sterile, static, and digital, he steps into a new milieu of fleshy, responsive, moving bodies—bodies that are fluid and shifting, that contract and expand, that jiggle and shake, that are, in other words, in a constant state of change. It is in this environment that he is suddenly free, for what seems like the first time, to explore his own body in all its initial incoherence, and later in its growing ability to articulate a new language. It is his individual exploration—a growing part of himself that he carries and tends wherever he goes (in the street, the office bathroom). But it is a part of him that ultimately flowers in the community of the dance class, among others who are doing their own exploring and growing. It is a necessary environmental shift, to a world of other bodies experiencing their full capacities of feeling and being through movement, individually and as a group. By the end of Yanvalou, we sense that the Man has changed. It is not a loud, flashy change but a quiet, internal shift. It looks like he has realized a new way of being in the world—more vitally alive, more attuned, and more connected to his full, feeling bodily self and its relation to others.
- Yvonne Daniel, Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Comdomble (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 111-112.
- Katherine Dunham, Island Possessed (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 118.
- Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983), 176.
- Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (as cited in review by Walter Cline, The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 53, No. 208/209, Apr.-Sep., 1940). http://www.jstor.org/stable/535677 (last accessed 9 September 2017).
This piece was written by Rachel Wyman, who plays The Dancer in "Yanvalou." Wyman is a dancer and researcher from Walla Walla, Washington with an MS in Dance and Movement Therapy from the Pratt Institute. Rachel studied folkloric Malian dance under Bintu Diabate of Les Ballets Malien in Bamako as part of her education in Dance and Africana Studies at Oberlin College. She continues to study Haitian Vodou cosmology and its dances in Haiti and NYC.
💡 This project relates to Never Gonna Work.