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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: “Grief Wrote Me a Letter” live performance & “Panels” film premiere, produced by Tracey Lindsay Chan, Great Star Theater, February 9, 2024

Per the Chinese calendar, it is New Year’s Eve. San Francisco’s Chinatown is cacophonous with explosions celebrating the passing from the old year into the new one. I am headed to The Great Star Theater for the world-premiere of panels, a dance film on grief.


Choreographer and film co-director Tracey Lindsay Chan greets us, sharing that the film’s vision grew out of the emotions she experienced upon the death of her 100-year old grandmother, Bonnie, in November 2022.  Despite her long life, Bonnie (born 102 years ago today, Feb. 9) wasn’t ready to leave, leading Chan to contemplate the consequences of switching places with the dead.  Asking herself and her cast, “If you met grief face-to-face, how would it manifest?”


Iva Dixson the Fervid Griever performing in Panels; Photo by @justlai87 for #panelsdancefilm


The answers are exciting and varied. The film offers audiences a trio of possibilities following the experiences of “Fervid Griever” Iva Dixson, “Pensive Griever” Anna Gichan and “Stoic Griever” Sarah Emmons. Chan’s art direction, scenic design and costume design (with the support of Samantha Greene) is imaginative and immersive.


This is Chan’s first film and her first choreographic project, as she left a successful career in tech to pursue dance, a back-burner passion, full-time in 2021.  Chan has a good eye for emerging talent, pairing up with filmmaker Eric Mann as her co-director (also cinematographer and sound designer). Their half-hour dance film is engaging from start to finish, with strong choreography, bold storytelling, and professional polish. Despite having no verbal speaking, the narrative is sufficiently clear.  Like the best of contemporary dance, it is rich in ideas, but leaves room for different interpretations.


The film begins and ends with the trio dancing in the sun-browned grasses of pastural Sonoma County.  Seekers, they run across the landscape, stopping to rub dirt along their cheeks, as grievers in search of solace.  


Dixson breeches the membrane between the living and the dead. Sucked into a hole in the ground, she finds herself in a white room, awash in sunlight.  Her presence awakens a group of white-garbed corpses, their faces crusted in white earth.  Dixson is curious, investigating their energy, hugging one, head bumping another. Her attempt to add some of their bleached-mud-mask to her own face causes an uproar.  As the dead dash haphazardly around the room, their frantic energy is enhanced by the interspersing of various close-up camera angles.


Anna Gichan finds herself at the bottom of a shadowy staircase.  Her anxiety leaves her exposed to control by her doppelganger and later a veiled ghost (Chisa Kobayashi). Fleeing, she happens into a creepy cabaret, where a long table of queer characters flaunt and taunt. The vibe is “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” as performers Alex Foy, Abigail Hinson, Raychel Hatch and Zoë-Elise Quon each make the most of their underworld persona as the Menacing Doll, Mutated Rockstar, Shady Alchemist, and Demented Jester. 


Alex Foy as the Menacing Doll costume by Samantha Greene performing in Panels; Photo for #panelsdancefilm


Aboveground, Sarah Emmons claws at the dirt in frustration. With a burst of energy, she pushes away from the ground, scissor kicking in the air. With her body momentarily suspended the side camera angle makes it look as if Emmons has been tossed from a grave.

Much of the sound score is original music created by, one of three, composers: Joseph Genden, Juhuhn Kim and Ayrton Farias.  I was so caught up in the visuals that I only gave the music passing notice, but I suspect it is as extraordinary as the rest of this project.


Sarah Emmons the Stoic Griever performing in Panels; Photo by @justlai87 for #panelsdancefilm


Preceding the film is Grief Wrote Me a Letter, a live performance of 11 linked solos co-choregraphed by Chan and the performer. While each artist’s is a personal response to grief, the dances are surprisingly distinct and warrant their own brief shout out.


In the silhouette of flamenco dancer, with arms posed above her head, Leila Massoudi’s fingers tap the time of the accompanying guitar music. Her sorrow and confusion are palpable. Crossing the space her arms lead the way, jerking her body to reluctantly follow.


With fluid limbs, Kat Brault reaches up, legs churning as if underwater, straining to reach a distant surface. They roll in a blue light, to the tinkling of a piano, as if tossed along the shore by an ebbing tide.


Grasping her shoulder, covering her mouth, Chisa Kobayashi seems to be trying to hold in the pain.  She pirouettes around the circle. Rolling her head, her long black hair whips with each rotation. Kobayashi ends with a dramatically deep back bend, chest open and arms draped downward.


Red lights flash luridly as Zoë-Elise Quon, on her knees, works to gather disparate puzzle pieces arrayed on the floor around her.  Reacting to the sounding of a chime, Quon stumbles stiff-legged her balance illusive.


Leading with his naked chest, Trask Reinhart dives across the stage, his hands laced behind his back. His speed and bent posture cause one to worry he will fall on to his face as his dance combines forcefulness with vulnerability,


Sixties Country crooner Brenda Lee laments “Break It To Me Easy,” as Abigail Hinson backs onto the stage, sliding on her knees. Rising and falling quickly, her twisted stagger has a ragdoll quality, that belies the athleticism necessary to push off from the floor with one arm, or balance on a single wonkily bent leg, as she does. 


Anna Gichan’s black sheath dress helps her create strong curvilinear forms as she arches. Using her hands to manipulate her body parts, she pulls a foot to her head, kicking herself in the forehead.  Tortured, Gichan hunches her shoulders so deeply that her neck disappears and it appears her head might sink inside her collarbones. 


Keeping her head from falling forward Alex Foy cups her chin firmly in her palm.  Off kilter, she wanders with one arm pointed at the sky as if tethered there, as her head and torso dip to the side.  Foy mimes a knife to the gut, smiling eerily as she withdraws it. Has she been stabbed in the gut by her grief? Or is she committing harikari as a means of escape? Either way Foy’s emotionally powerful delivery packs a punch.


Drawing angry fists toward her chest, Raychel Hatch runs backward. Her feet gracefully replace each other with each stride.  Jumping, rolling, a bit out of control, Hatch’s many direction changes suggest she should consider heeding Billy Joel’s lyrics to “slow down you crazy child,” (‘Vienna’) to which she performs.  


There is a bittersweet and jovial quality to Tajh Stallworth’s dancing.  Dashing, sliding, skipping, smiling, their jazz spins embody fond but fleeting memories.


Sarah Emmons’s arms fall heavily, as if the weight they carry is too much. A pointed toe extends testing the waters. A flexed foot hovers above the floor, as she assesses her balance.  Reassembling the components of self, Emmons presses her palms to her head and trunk.  With her focus beseechingly heavenward, Emmons closes the piece with a hinge centerstage. As the lights fade, the full-house of 400 guests cheer in appreciation for this succinct showcase of up-and-coming Bay Area talent.


Cast of Grief Wrote Me a Letter takes their bow at the Great Star Theater; Photo: J. Norris


Review by Jen Norris, published February 10, 2024

____________________________

Credits:

PANELS — Film Credits

In Front of the Camera

Leads:

Anna Gichan - Pensive Griever

Iva Dixson - Fervid Griever

Sarah Emmons - Stoic Griever

Ensemble

Abigail Hinson - Mutated Rockstar / Corpsy Creature

Alex Foy - Menacing Doll

Chisa Kobayashi - Veiled Ghost / Corpsy Creature

Kat Brault - Corpsy Creature

Leila Massoudi - Corpsy Creature

Raychel Hatch - Shady Alchemist / Corpsy Creature

Tajh Stallworth - Ringleader / Corpsy Creature

Trask Reinhart - Summoning Master

Zoë-Elise Quon - Demented Jester / Corpsy Creature

Background Party-Goers:

Ariana Boostani, Annika Mikk, Devon Good, Elizabeth Musco, Emily Engelking-Rappeport, Hannah Woolfenden


Behind the Camera

Directors: Tracey Lindsay Chan & Eric Mann

Story & Choreography by Tracey Lindsay Chan & the improv talents of the dancers

Executive Producers: Tracey Lindsay Chan, Eric Mann, Ben Crabtree

Cinematography Eric Mann

Artistic Direction Tracey Lindsay Chan

Assistant Directors: Christina Chin and Meera Joshi

Assistant Camera: Hansol Kim and Meera Joshi

Jib Operators: Ben Crabtree and Torv Carlsen

Set Design: Tracey Lindsay Chan, Eric Mann, Samantha Greene

Production Assistants: Alex Llavore. Ben Crabtree, Jamie Egg. Chan Aquino, Justin Lai, Rachel Castillo, William ‘AJ’ Aquino


Music

Joseph Genden - Composer

Juhuhn Kim - Composer - Hallway

Ayrton Farias - Composer - Party Intro

Ethan Rubin - Sound Engineer - Hallway, Party Intro

Jasmine Zhang - Vocal Artist

Sound

Eric Mann - Sound Design

Tracey Lindsay Chan - Foley Artist

Costuming

Tracey Lindsay Chan & Samantha Greene

Make Up

Grievers - The Dancers

Corpsy Creatures - Tracey Lindsay Chan, Christina Chin

Party Goers - Tracey Lindsay Chan, Alex Foy, The Dancers

Editing

Eric Mann & Tracey Lindsay Chan

Behind-the-Scenes

Photography: Justin Lai & Meera Joshi


Music

“Death"Performed & Written by Tatiana LisovskayaCourtesy of Copyright Administration Services LTD

“Reading Bones”Performed & Written by David Toop, Lawrence EnglishCourtesy of David Toop & Lawrence English

“Re-acclimation”Performed & Written by Joe Genden“Chosen Descent”Performed & Written by Joe GendenVocalizations by Jasmine Zhang

“Hallway Theme”Performed & Written by Juhuhn KimRecorded & Mixed by Ethan Rubin

“Bem-vindo, Festa”Performed and Written by Ayrton “Sennoide” FariasMixed by Ethan Rubin“Buried Drink”Performed & Written by Joe Genden

“Search, Party, Sleep”Performed & Written by Joe Genden

“Moving Forward I”Performed & Written by Tatiana LisovskayaCourtesy of Copyright Administration Services LTD

 

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