Risk and Reward: Mark Dendy in Santa Barbara

Next week I drive to Santa Barbara for the second of three “Friday Clubs” with New York choreographer Mark Dendy and his dancers. This is a new offering from DANCEworks, a residency program that gives choreographers a full month to make new work onstage at the lovely 700-seat Lobero Theater, with full technical support. This allows choreographers the rare luxury of developing the work intensively, and in steady collaboration with lighting designers, musical collaborators, costumers, and set architects. The first five DANCEworks residencies have yielded tremendous successes, from Doug Elkins’ celebrated “Mo(or)town Redux” to Brian Brooks’ daring “Big City.”

The mission of DANCEworks is so important, I feel, and the enthusiasm of executive director Dianne Vapnek is so infectious, that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines as a critic/observer, and 18 months ago I joined the DANCEworks board. (Fortunately, this hasn’t yet created too many conflicts of interest in my reviewing life, since DANCEworks commissions only one choreographer per year, and by invitation only–no application process.) I’m on the edge of my seat about what Mark Dendy will do this year in his fresh work, “Dystopian Distractions!” Dendy, who has seen a resurgence in his career recently with his massive (80-dancer) “Ritual Cyclical” at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors festival, has chosen to take on the war machine of American culture in a dark satire of dance theater. I have no idea what the new work will have to say about Americans and war, no idea how it might provoke, enlighten, or offend–which is a risk at the heart of the DANCEworks mission.

At the new “Friday Club,” anyone who donates $50 or more to DANCEworks can see the work as it progresses, and talk about it with Mark and his dancers on the Lobero Stage. “Dystopian Distractions!” will have a full work-in-progress performance on April 26th, and I will be giving a short pre-curtain lecture.

Here’s an invitation from Mark and his dancers to the “Friday Club.”

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Saturday, April 5th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


Shostokovich Trilogy: An Exhortation

I think only a Russian could have choreographed Shostakovich as Alexei Ratmansky has, capturing the music’s inner current so subtly and chillingly. Or perhaps a Czech, because seeing Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy is like being inside the dance equivalent of a Milan Kundera novel. The cast at last night’s west coast premiere with San Francisco Ballet (the production is a co-commission with American Ballet Theatre) was terrific to a one. The ballet feels eerily timely given Putin’s latest maneuvers, and there’s irony indeed in the fact that the stunning set designs which, in “Shostakovich Trilogy,” lightly spoof propaganda are by the same designer who for the Winter Olympics created ceremony scenery that served as actual propaganda. I take my exhortative recommendations very seriously. If you possibly can, you should see this.

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Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 · Books, Dance · No Comments »


Spring Memoir and Essay Classes: Registration Open

I have a few spots left in my spring classes in personal essay and advanced memoir at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, which is located at 2nd and Bryant Streets, in SOMA. If you’re looking for a substantive class that will both nurture and challenge you, that’s what I offer. Some unsolicited feedback from my most recent classes:

“I’ll write this feedback on the course evaluation, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve learned so much from you about teaching and giving feedback on writing. You have such a gift of making each individual want to continue writing.”

“I want to let you know how meaningful the course has been to me. It is the first writing course (since my college days!) I have participated in and it has been a revelation. I have learned much about the craft–but I have also learned much about myself and others. I have seen how the process of writing can illuminate, frame and provide context and meaning to life experiences. It can also heal and bring closure. It has helped me in unexpected ways at this time.

Thank you for being a wise guide and insightful and supportive teacher. I will miss your influence and gentle prodding (to get on with the assignment!)–and I will miss learning from my talented classmates. Collective risk taking and giving voice to our stories has forged lasting connections.”

Full class info below. Please contact me at rachel (dot) howard (at) gmail if interested.

Mastering the Personal Essay with the Masters (4/16 – 6/11)

Number of sessions: 9
Meeting time: Wednesdays, 6:30 – 9:30 PM
Dates: 4/16 – 6/11

Course fee: $595, $75 deposit for the session

To register, contact the instructor. All deposits are nonrefundable.

Description: How can you learn from the masterful writers who have come before you while, paradoxically, also finding your unique voice? In this course for writers of all levels, we will master the personal essay the way painters and poets approach their disciplines: by first analyzing, then “copying” our forebears. Here’s how it works: we will cycle between devoting one full week to closely reading masterful short essays by such diverse writers as Grace Paley, Harry Crews, Dinty Moore, Joan Didion, and Seymour Krim. The following week, you will draft one “imitation”—an original work that riffs on the published essay’s style or structure—for feedback from your classmates and the instructor. By week six, you will have written and workshopped three personal essays. Then, for the final month, you will tap your own personal mix of influences to produce an essay workshopped by the entire class. Along the way, you will learn to mine your richest material, make the most of thought-provoking images, and craft endings that resonate.

Instructor Bio: Rachel Howard is the author of a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, The Lost Night, described as “enthralling” by the New York Times. Her personal essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, the Arroyo Literary Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Berfrois, Canteen, and in the New York Times’ “Draft” series. She received an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, and later served as interim director of undergraduate creative writing there.

Memoir II: Intermediate/Advanced Workshop (4/14 – 6/9, no class Memorial Day)

Number of sessions: 8
Meeting time: Mondays, 6:30 – 9:30 PM
Dates: 4/14 – 6/9

Course fee: $495, $75 deposit for the session

To register, contact the instructor. All deposits are nonrefundable.

Description: This combination seminar and workshop provides ongoing craft discussion, support, and critique for committed memoir writers. During the first half of each class we’ll examine published memoirs, with an eye to guide and inspire your own writing. What is your story really about, and how can your evolving understanding power the writing process? How can you keep opening up parts of your story that feel too hot to touch? We’ll balance an awareness of the emotional process behind memoir writing with the practical study of technique, talking about building tone and style, finding lines of tension, and thinking about theme to discover new layers of meaning that can shape your larger work. Weekly writing assignments (returned with weekly private instructor feedback) will keep you experimenting and producing new pages.

Then we’ll turn to your workshop submissions, aiming to reflect back to the writer what has been communicated, and to describe further opportunities we see. We’ll point to strengths, and offer ideas for substantive revision in a thoughtful environment. Every writer will have the opportunity to submit to workshop twice during our eight weeks together. Ultimately this class will help you gain greater perspective on your work by listening to others. But my deeper goal is to help you build a strong personal writing sensibility by encouraging you–amidst the flurry of feedback–to listen foremost to yourself.

*Please note: This class requires instructor consideration of a writing sample to ensure correct placement.

Instructor Bio: Rachel Howard is the author of the memoir The Lost Night: A Daughter’s Search for the Truth of Her Father’s Murder, described as “enthralling” by the New York Times. Her personal essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and O, the Oprah Magazine. Her advice is quoted extensively in The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and later served as interim director of undergraduate creative writing there.

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Sunday, March 16th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »


“Six Card Games”

The lovely and intellectually provocative Berfrois has just published one of my newest essays, “Six Card Games.”

An excerpt:

“G– cleared our pizza crusts. The bay lapped the boat and the old pit bull snored as G– dealt. Within fifteen minutes I was down to two cards in my pile, playing every card I could every time, gloating, and G– still had a tall stack. He rose to pour more Beaujolais and I blurted, “So you’re 51, never married. Do you think you’d want a family?”

G– slapped down three cards in a row with a competitor’s smirk. “Interesting question, Canary,” he said. “Probably not.”

I was 34 and we were both well aware of that.
He tapped the cards in his hand on the laminated little table. “So much for your lucky streak,” he said with a cluck.”

Full essay is here. Many thanks to Berfrois for sharing this work.

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Thursday, March 6th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »


More on the New Ballet San Jose

Whether the moneyed tech population of Silicon Valley will support the reinvented Ballet San Jose remains to be seen, but whether Jose Manuel Carreno was the right choice to lead this company’s upgrade was perfectly clear Saturday night at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The first repertory program of Carreno’s reign was ingenious programming, to be sure: the ageless, elegiac craftsmanship of Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade,” the busy, street-wise energy of Jorma Elo’s 2006 “Glow-Stop;” and the in-your-face angst (mixed with some playful lounge music) of Ohad Naharin’s collage of dances from the ‘90s, “Minus 16,” replete with audience participation finale.

This was a smart slate not only in the range of emotion and physicality it fed the audience, and the balance between crowd pleasing (the Elo) and classic (Balanchine). It was also brilliant in the growth it demanded from Ballet San Jose’s lovable, eager dancers. Everywhere in the ensemble, veteran company members who once stagnated became standouts: Jeremy Kovitch was a muscled wonder of deep presence in “Glow-Stop;” Beth Ann Namey brought an ease of lyricism to “Serenade.” Alexsandra Meijer has long shone as the top technician at Ballet San Jose; now she is joined by the equally elegant and musical Ommi Pipit-Suksun, whom fans will remember from her soloist days at San Francisco Ballet, and the two presided angelically in both the Balanchine and the Elo. There were new men commanding attention, too, especially the slinky Bosnian dancer Damir Emric, and corps member James Kopecky, who had the perfect unnerving intensity required for a company to pull off Naharin.

The audience was robust and raucously appreciative. But recently Ballet San Jose had to cancel Saturday afternoon shows and live music because Carreno’s kick-off gala, last November, did not net major donors. So listen up, Silicon Valley: Aren’t you always looking for the hot new thing? Here’s a tip: Ohad Naharin, danced with fervor by San Jose’s own—that’s a sure bet. Any sensible VC firm would make a sizable Series A investment in Carreno’s Ballet San Jose.

PS: Here’s an informative article from Allan Ulrich about all that Carreno is up to.

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Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 · Dance · 1 Comment »


New Essay in Spring Arroyo Literary Review

I’m delighted to have a new essay, “Frank Black,” just published in the Spring ’14 Arroyo Literary Review. In addition to the print edition, the magazine has made the piece available online here.

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Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 · Misc. · No Comments »


Recent Dance Writing

I’ve been doing a lot of dance/performance writing lately, and thought I would collect it here:

Interview with Korean Shaman-singer Dohee Lee. This was a special encounter for me, and I wish I’d had at least twice the space to profile her. I admire her so much.

Extremely short preview of Robert Moses’ Kin. His solo, “Slow Rise of a Rigid Man,” did turn out to be the best thing about the evening.

Interview with Zimbabwean exile Nora Chipaumire, bringing her choreography to the Black Choreographers Festival. Another subject that deserved more space.

A review of Diablo Ballet. Robert Dekkers was the man of the hour.

An interview with ballet superstar Alina Cojocaru, formerly of the Royal Ballet, in SF with the Hamburg Ballet. Delightful woman and dedicated artist.

A profile of SF Ballet’s prolific Val Caniparoli on the occasion of his world premiere, “Tears.”

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Friday, February 14th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


Froustey’s First “Giselle”

January 26, 2014
War Memorial Opera House

It was good to discover much more about new San Francisco Ballet principal Mathilde Froustey in her “Giselle” debut here Sunday. She certainly drew instant adoration from the sold-out matinee audience—the standing ovation was overwhelming—and for good reason. She is not only an effortless technician, but a natural actress, and this made her Act One a nailbiter. As a peasant girl, she was all naïve sweetness, but no coyness—and this meant, wonderfully, we worried for her as that rascal Count Albrecht convinced her that the flower petals wouldn’t lead to “he loves me not.”

I especially enjoyed the looseness in Froustey’s neck throughout the group dances as Albrecht swung her side to side—she let go, in a swoon, far too trusting. And yet when it came time for the show-off steps, Froustey was bold, so much so that she almost tottered off pointe in a long balance on her second big arabesque. Soon enough, she was making the toughest feats look like child’s play, just like they should, taking springy hops with those little rond de jambe en l’air (when Giselle bounces on pointe while twirling one leg around in front of her) and lifting her hands high from Albrecht’s arm to show the unsupported attitude before her big penchee plunge. Froustey sailed through the flute solo as though on a continuous breeze, buoyed by the marvelous playing of Principal Flutist Barbara Chaffee.

“Giselle” presents considerable choices to the ballerina: Does Giselle die of a weak heart or emotional trauma or both, and if so, how do the two causes connect? Froustey’s interpretation is a work in progress. Her first gasp of heart-weakness was dramatic, yet within minutes all physical weakness disappeared. Her mental break after Albrecht’s unveiling as a two-timing playboy was sharp—shades of Ophelia as she staggered, but staggering and leaping with strength, as though Froustey forgot to dim her technical power. No ambiguity here: Froustey’s Giselle died from madness, not heart palpitations. (But not before swinging Albrecht’s sword especially wide, and catching Bathilde’s skirt. Froustey stayed in character—riiiipp!—and the most expensive costume in the production got torn in two.)

Froustey’s Act Two appears even more under construction. Again with the wonderful head and neck, and the impressive penchees—but she has not yet carved her own phrasings into this much-trod choreography. And she seems to be figuring out what she wants to achieve by way of optical illusions. Some ballerinas can make those odd feet-tucked under jumps look less like steps and more like some gust is eerily batting them about the stage like a cottonball. For Froustey, at this early juncture, the steps still look like steps.

It was also good to see new soloist Simone Messmer in her first Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis at SF Ballet (she has previously danced the role at American Ballet Theatre). Like Froustey, Messmer seems technically infallible, and she projected Myrtha’s brittle resolve in her decisive head and neck. But she does not yet create the pathos of Sofiane Sylve, the best Myrtha I’ve seen at SF Ballet. How she accomplishes it I’m not quite sure, but in Sylve’s rendering you see not just Myrtha’s angry strength, but the hurt that drives it. It’s heartbreaking.

Which goes to prove: Though Froustey and Messmer repeat their roles on Friday, you really can’t go wrong with any cast in this “Giselle” run. Lorena Feijoo dances it in the rounder Romantic style she learned at the National Ballet of Cuba, while Yuan Yuan Tan’s willowy lines make for an otherworldly second act. Vanessa Zahorian imbues the role with unmatched clarity, and Sarah Van Patten gives it unparalleled naturalism, while Maria Kochetkova may remain the most fully realized Giselle in the company. And among the Albrechts, too, there are varying strengths to be savored. Allan Ulrich reports that Davit Karapetyan builds a fully fleshed character, something Tiit Helimets did not do on Sunday—but oh what a thrill to see those trembling feet on his terrified entrechats!

The corps looks superb, especially in Act Two. And there’s always a revelation or two to behold in the Act One peasant pas de cinq. On Sunday, it was corps member Wei Wang landing double tours with air time to spare, and using a juicy plié to power the most perfect pirouettes I can imagine.

PS: Here’s a great interview with Froustey, freshly arrived in SF.

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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


San Francisco Ballet’s 81st Season Opening Gala

War Memorial Opera House
January 22, 2014

A wonderfully substantive, often serious, season-opening gala at the San Francisco Ballet last night. I appreciate the risk artistic director Helgi Tomasson took in the full U.S. premiere of Hans van Manen’s “Variations for Two Couples,” and a lengthy excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto.” These were both ballets with shadowy lighting, stark costuming, and tense relationships playing out to challenging music: a peculiar potpourri of Britten, Piazzolla, Rautavaara, and Tickmayer in “Two Couples;” the adagio from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in “Concerto.” Sarah Van Patten commanded both of these ballets, growing into a stately simplicity of stage presence in this prime of her career.

For crowd-pleasers, we were treated to Taras Domitro slashing his way like Tarzan (well, Tarzan with unfailing turn-out) through that old Russian bonbon, the “Diana and Acteon” pas de deux. And Gennadi Nedvigin offered charm and virtuosity with equal ease in Johan Kobborg’s “Les Lutins,” a little romp of rivalry with Esteban Hernandez and the gymnastic Dores Andre. Kobborg himself, a Royal Ballet star, also danced in the gala, with Maria Kochetkova, in the odd central boudoir scene from MacMillan’s “Manon.”

The major discoveries of the evening for me were two. One, the new principal Mathilde Froustey with her matchstick limbs and freakishly perfect mechanics in Victor Gsovsky’s regal-yet-flirty “Grand Pas Classique”—she reminds me of Gelsey Kirkland. And two: the new soloist Simone Messmer finding a juicy partnership with Ruben Martin Cintas in “The Man I Love” pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” The loose, almost tap-dancer arms, the filly-like speed, the jazzy hips—I don’t know when I’ve seen such a seemingly effortless exemplar of the Balanchine style on the War Memorial stage. Messmer’s repertoire at her first company, American Ballet Theatre, suggests she is a stylistic shape-shifter; I can’t wait to see her range this season.

And as for rediscoveries: Sasha de Sola in the Act 1 pas de cinq from “Giselle.” What hands! Her lines are always moving—she’s like a skywriter of calligraphy—and yet her lines are always classical. There were so many other pleasures of the evening: the live flamenco singing and clapping in Yuri Possokhov’s “Talk to Her,” the strong arms of Frances Chung in a solo from Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena,” the slashing gypsy freedom of Sofiane Sylve in the fourth movement of Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” But de Sola’s hands keep trailing through my memory.

PS: Froustey has been cast as Giselle and Messmer as Myrtha in the Sunday 1/26 matinee and the Friday 1/31 evening performances. Casting here.

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Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


Brontez Purnell at the Fresh Festival

FRESH FESTIVAL 2013 POV Performance Series
January 11, 2014
KUNST-STOFF arts, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Fresh Festival mostly lived up to its name last Saturday with the second installment of its POV performance series. I was particularly fascinated by Brontez Purnell—or more specifically, I’ll admit, by his buttcrack. It did more than peek above a silver-studded belt—it fairly glared—and whether or not that was intentional (Purnell several times tugged the hem of his untucked dress shirt down), that very beautiful buttcrack was just one of many ways Purnell’s wonderfully distinctive body provoked curiosity over the course of “Unwanted Conversation.”

For the first half of the piece, Purnell and his collaborator Sophia Wang danced around each other, he all limbs, sharply arched back, and flaring eyes, and she compact, contained, and cool. Though many contemporary choreographers have, thank goodness, accustomed us to seeing dancers of diverse physicality onstage together, the question still arose for me: Who were these two and why would they be dancing together? That’s a question Purnell’s choreography wonderfully stoked, as he and Wang traversed the stage in thick soled shoes, stomping, mostly not looking at one another, but in unison launching into a jump that landed (thwack!) with one leg kicked up behind, one arm slicing forward. The movement felt mysterious but not random.

Then Purnell opened a window (the performance was happening not in a proscenium space, but in the Kunst-Stoff Arts studio, with windows along the back wall), and writhed while making sex noises. Finally Purnell and Wang came to stand face-to-face and—whack!—she slapped him. And he slapped her, with equal force. Gasps in the audience. Then they began to kiss.

Purnell made his way to the far side of the floor and began to shout. “Fucking sex. Oh. Girl.” By this point the audience was catching on—these were ludicrous cat calls. “Oh. Female who can get pregnant. Oh. Fertile woman.” Then Purnell went to the back wall and screamed “STELLLLLLLAAAAA!”

After the applause, Purnell explained that “Unwanted Conversation” was inspired by an encounter at a bus stop. Then he said his next piece, “Radical Gesture,” would be abbreviated because he had just hurt his knee. The whole audience said, “Awww,” and he glared at us in mockery. Then he said we had to start shouting questions at him or the next piece would fail.

And so, as Purnell began to slither around the stage, we did. What does he do all day? He’s a student. Where? Cal State East Bay. This led to a tirade about his student loans, now at $30,000. If someone gave him $30,000, what would he do with it? Buy drugs. What kind? Cocaine and weed and Yerba Mate. Someone asked if he had tattoos. Someone asked if we could see them. So he started by taking off his pants and underwear, and then he took off his shirt. How did he like being uncircumcised? He loved it. What was the worst thing that ever happened to him? Not getting laid. How come he was from the South but he didn’t have an accent? And this led to the story of Purnell’s mother studying speech pathology, and saying, “You’re gonna get a job anywhere, bitch,” and about his childhood as a military brat, and about the assumption that because he’s an African American from the South, his mother must have been a good cook. Purnell picked up a huge sword, put it in his mouth, and began to crawl. What are you going to do with that sword in your mouth? He answered, matter of fact, Symbolism.

Would you believe me if I said all of this was fascinating? It was to me—and others in the room were equally hooked. Was that due to Purnell’s stagecraft or his peculiar style of vindictive dignity, which seemed to invite us to gawk at him just so he could throw it in our face? In a genre like performance art-based dance, where charisma might be everything, can you distinguish craft from presence? I don’t know, but I know I’ve seen a lot of dull performance art, and Purnell not only made me pay attention, he left me wrestling with my reactions. Someone give this guy a grant.

I was taken, too, by Anna Martine Whitehead and her “Falling Queens,” in which she began with an aggressive dance, the music pumping out lyrics like I’m gonna teach that bitch, as Whitehead moved with very fast hands and head flickerings, almost flailing, yet making mesmerizing clear shapes. She then trained us to watch her, saying “right foot up, right foot down” as she did each movement. Behind her a furry brown blanket lay in a heap, and she began to circle it as though it contained something secret, directing herself: “Act like you can’t see this thing. Don’t let them know that you saw it. Get close but act normal.” And as she was peeking out the side of her eyes, “More normal! MORE NORMAL!”

Soon we were all entranced by the mystery of this invisible thing, which—we learned as Whitehead continued to interact with it—changes position, and “makes you feel good but you can never fucking get near it,” “as though it’s in the floor or in the air,” “as though it’s coming out of you!” “You’re a cloud shaped like Beyonce”—and here Whitehead moved sexily, but a moment later, “maybe the thing is inside you!” And suddenly she was gasping, convulsing, desperate to pull it out of her body.

Now, with Whitehead, for me there was no question: This was not mere charisma, this was masterful manipulation of the audience, the kind of mastery you might find in a top magician or comedian. The second half of “Falling Queens” became less memorable. But I would certainly see more performance from this woman.

Violeta Luna ended the program with a piece reenacting the chilling performance art of Ana Mendieta. I think I was interested mostly because Brontez Purnell was sobbing in the audience—did he know something we didn’t? The blood pouring from Luna’s hands—no, don’t let this be true—had she really cut herself? No, thankfully, and with such fears removed I found her presence rather winking and coy.

Sara Kraft started the evening with a wonderfully smart installation, “Wrecked/A-Part-Ment,” which played off the studio windows by projecting text upon them, leading us to look at reflections and the street below simultaneously, as Kraft’s low, purring voice directed us.

The whole evening was so engaging that I wish I could return tonight for Jess Curtis and Abby Crain, among others (work commitments prevent me). The POV performances are just one small part of the Fresh Festival, which fills three weeks with workshops, discussions, and parties. It must be enormously stimulating for the students and teachers, and I’m thoroughly impressed by what its organizers, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Ernesto Sopprani, have offered to the dance community.

PS: Brontez is new to me, but not to fans of his zine, Fag School, and of his band, the Younger Lovers. Here is more on him.

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Saturday, January 18th, 2014 · Dance · No Comments »


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