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Robert Joffreyand the Joffrey Ballet(s)


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#1 Mel Johnson

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 03:26 AM

ROBERT JOFFREY
(1928-1988)

First, let me say that if you want a biography of Robert Joffrey, this is not the article for you. Sasha Anawalt has already done a most creditable job of doing that in her excellent The Joffrey Ballet. Those seeking details will look there for attempts to pen this most mercurial of men into a corner, and still, like Stephen Vincent Benet's Robert E. Lee, there is a heart, "safe from all the picklocks of biographers." Second, I have to say that I was his secretary for a time (1975-76) and there are things which I will take with me to the grave. "Secret" is the essence of the secretary. But don't feel shorted. Those things are a lot like October 21, 1975, when he did NOT have an asthma attack (by the way, he used "asthma" to cover a lot, but I never saw him in acute episode), but was attending the Broadway opening night of Scott Joplin's opera, Treemonisha. There are some things so trivial that even now the only things I can remember about them is that they were trivial. When I undertook this project, I thought that I would make a catalogue raisonnée of his choreographic work, but there were so many "incidentals" as industrial shows, appearances a society events, opera choreographies and so forth, that I had to abandon that line of inquiry.

I have little familiarity, except in the most general terms, from having been a student at the Joffrey School, in and out for five years over ten years all told, and being given bits of quotations from the earlier works before "Gamelan" by dancers and teachers who had been part of the casts of some of those early works.

As I have said, this is not a biography of my former principal, and it is not a summary of his work as a director/producer. Anawalt has covered those capacities in great part in her work. Some crossover, however, must be allowed, as the function of one is so tied up in the other. Joffrey, as has been noted in many places, was an exceptionally private individual, who was able to commit affability and mystery simultaneously. There are things that I don't believe that even he could keep quite unconfounded himself. For one thing, he had told Anatole Chujoy that his "real name" was "Abdullah Anver Jaffa Bey Khan"; from the Dance Encyclopedia, this error was carried into tertiary sources and now appears as Gospel. At least the "Anver" is correct. According to his cousin Naïm, he invented it when he was about 12 years old, and tried to imagine himself in his father's home country of the Pashto area of Afghanistan/Pakistan, where so many interesting things are going on these days. The name that appeared on his passport was "Anver Robert Joffrey" and gave his birthdate as December 24, 1928. This passport was the one he was issued in order to visit Russia during the chilliest time of the Cold War, and the State Department, I suppose, checked its authenticity rigorously. The pseudonym he sometimes used for programming purposes, much as "George Spelvin" is used by actors. His father, known familiarly as Doulat Khan, had legally anglicized his name to "Joseph Joffrey" before Robert's birth. And he did not answer to "Anver". Neither did he answer to "Bob" or "Robert", at least to his subordinates. He was "Mister Joffrey", and those of us who witnessed others using an intimate form of address for him cringed inwardly at the effrontery, no matter who was the speaker. A dancer who left the company to found his own was speaking of the separation, and told a third party that "I talked it over with Bob...", and convulsed all of us. Maybe we wouldn't have minded it from family. I found Naïm to be as affable as his cousin, and rather more communicative. A "Bob" from him wouldn't send a shudder through my frame.

Articulating Joffrey's career as a choreographer is a somewhat tricky enterprise, for he reduced his own choreography for his company after the "Station Wagon Period". "Pas des Déesses" was a signature work, "Gamelan" provided movements for an often-forgotten fashion show and TV show of 1964 (an early infomercial) for the roll-out of Celanese fabric as a couture material. Diana Vreeland (doyenne of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute) for years afterward would speak of "my divine Chel-a-NAY-say", as if it were Italian. Joffrey took the Lou Harrison score away, and the Joffrey dancers did passages from the Indonesian-inspired movements wearing costumes made from the new textile. Celanese nylon has very little "give" to it, yet spun fine, it is light and floaty, but other fabrics have since filled its niche in the fiber industry, and it is often found now as filler in nylon cordage.

His outlook on choreography was to fill gaps left by others, or to fulfil a programming need. At a time when everybody else was trying to do Balanchine Neo-Classicism with leotard ballets and movements based classically, but modified, Joffrey was a Neo-Romantic. If he wanted a Balanchine-like work, he got a real Balanchine. You can't get more Balanchine-like than that! If there were a similarity between Joffrey and any other choreographer of his time, I would have to place him more with Ashton than with anyone else. In part because of this affinity, the Joffrey Ballet ended up with more Ashton in its repertoire than any company outside of the Royal Ballet. He was very proud of his Ashton collection, and said so.

Some of his early works ended up influencing later works by Gerald Arpino, as "Within Four Walls" (1956) Stephen Foster score foreshadowed "Drums, Dreams and Banjos" (1975). He was also very conscious of audience taste. Arpino had wanted to call his ballet "Beautiful Dreamer", but Joffrey knew his audience. Whenever the sentimental old ballad was played in the overture, audiences giggled. On the whole, Joffrey's choice was better.

And we must address sex in here somewhere, so let's do it now. Arpino proved to be a lightning-rod, whose frequent subject was the erotic ("Jackpot" was about orgasms). Joffrey's approach was if possible more erotic by being less specific. "Astarte" was, after all, the name of a Levantine fertility goddess. (See "Ishtar", on second thought, don't, it was a lousy movie) In design, use of space, and the vocabulary of the pas de deux, Joffrey created a piece of psychedelia that was unforgettable. It was a work of its time, yet I believe it would be well-received if presented today. Joffrey's works, even from the very start, always seemed to have a lighting designer. He saw light as an integral part of the whole stage picture, and Tom Skelton and the ever-reliable and brilliant Jennifer Tipton were usually on hand to provide the needed part of the coordinated art. Even the ballets from the "Station Wagon Period" were wholly-produced items, even when it meant an offstage dancer had to run the lights, or move a piece of scenery.

Joffrey's Romantic sexiness even made it into the hothouse (one of the Wesendonck songs is "In the Greenhouse") bowers of "Remembrances". Much has been made of the dual role of "She". Who is "She, who Sings"? Donna Roll always made this part the motivator of the dancing which went on, usually to her left side. She was not a trained dancer in any sense, but her minimalist movement was always intense, and generated from within the music. Jan Hanniford, although a very fine dancer, also showed her acting skill as "She, who Remembers". Her vocabulary was very small in this ballet, but facial gestures, and the sinuous use of her arms and torso made her a foil for the dancers and her singing counterpart. Presumably, Francesca Corkle was Mathilde Wesendonck and her partners represented her husband and Richard Wagner himself, but who were the ensemble? Are they disengaged onlookers to the steamy-misty affair going on in the Wesendonck household, or are they having their own dramas, for one moment, the dramatic drop performed by Nancy (Yoko) Ichino and Robert Thomas from an overhead lift, or the significant looks by Joseph (Adix) Carman, sometimes inquisitive, sometimes assertive, but we don't know what he's saying there. Company members liked to say that "She" was Joffrey himself. Others felt that She was all the women in his life, his mother, his teachers, his co-workers, and that this was a love letter to them. One thing is certain. Robert Joffrey had his heart on his sleeve in this ballet. The one thing I carried away from this ballet was that the ensemble was all the rest of us, the company dancers, and the audience, too.

"Postcards" was a startlingly light ballet for an envoi, but in 1980, Joffrey was riding high, not a sign of illness, and all looked bright for the company only a year after a scary hiatus caused by a shortage of funds. The visually inventive Herbert Migdoll made a backdrop based on the interior view of the Eiffel Tower and clever setpieces referenced both Satie ballets in the Joffrey's history ("Parade" "Monotones" "Relache") and Satie himself. One poster stage left advertised "Le POIRE de SATIE".

But the most durable of all of Joffrey's own works is the redoubtable "Pas des Déesses" (1954), based on the central ensemble of Jules Perrot's old ballet "Le Jugement de Paris" as pictured by lithographer Chalon. As in the Keith Lester/Anton Dolin stagings of "Pas de Quatre", Joffrey essayed a riff on Romanticism in a beautiful series of pas de deux for the ballerinas and cavalier Arthur St.-Léon. The male role is extremely tiring, and when the company grew larger, some men asked that they not be asked to do another ballet on the same program. There are actually three versions of this ballet out there, somewhere, and while they are all blocked the same, the actual steps vary from fairly easy to very, very difficult. The version which premiered in 1954 was probably the hardest, and the one that reintroduced the Robert Joffrey Ballet after his spiking by Rebekah Harkness Kean, one of the easier ones. It was the first ballet I ever saw the Joffrey do in the early 60s, and I can recall John Wilson, having just danced in one ballet, rushing down into the pit to play the piano. The castings of this one show the versatility that was demanded of everyone in a Joffrey organization, with the first St.-Léon being Michael Lland, and his successor -- Glen Tetley?! My first St.-Léon was Nels Jorgensen, but he pulled up lame one day and was succeeded by -- Richard Gain?! And easy or hard, the St.-Léon part is always the same, almost brutally hard partnering, done with a velvet glove. There are lots of styles of dancing this ballet, too, and while I could describe them, you'd have to see for yourself. The 1965 Renaissance was the age of the Respectability of Camp, after Susan Sontag's ground-breaking essay, "Notes on Camp". Over-the-top was perfectly fine. The really hard and rather serious version returned and was on the program the night of the premiere of Arpino's "The Clowns". Both before and after, a more refined version was in place, and that is the version most people know today. Technically, it is about in the middle between the two extremes of difficulty. This is an important ballet, and should go on your must-see list, no matter who's dancing it. It contains much of the essence of Joffrey's æsthetic and work ethic.


As inner-directed as Mr. Joffrey was, the type of dancer he attracted to his companies was other-directed. I hesitate to use the terms "introvert" and "extrovert" here, as some Joffrey dancers were reticent about expressing themselves offstage, but all were real fireballs when they did go onstage. Joffrey would use the same formula with company-building that he did with repertoire-building - what are the other companies not using, I'll use that. The atypical body was often a Joffrey body, and he was able to mine a talent lode that many other companies either simply overlooked or even outright rejected. Boys too short or too tall? As long as they work hard, bring 'em on! Girls built with a blocky torso, or slightly shorter legs than was the fashion? They had their places in a Joffrey company. Of course, there were the "ideals", too, and they had a place, but the universal qualification for a Joffrey dancer seemed to be that they seemed to be telling a story while they danced even pure-dance works. A Joffrey dancer is a narrative dancer, among many other things.

#2 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 05:12 AM

Mel were you working for Mr. Joffrey when he did the Joffrey Workshops? I remember one of them being held at the Ruth Page Foundation School and being so surprised that Mr. Joffrey himself came to teach! I wasn't enrolled in the Workshop but I was at the school and I was working for Miss Page in her office at the time. Do you remember who else taught in them?

#3 SanderO

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 06:01 AM

Mel,

Your writing is wonderful. Can we commission you to write an entire book about your Joffrey remembrances?

#4 bart

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 11:30 AM

Thank you, Mel. For me, in the 60s and 70s, the Joffrey was NYC's second company, not ABT. One entered the City Center with a sense of excitement and expectation -- and this was similar to the feeling you had with NYCB in those days. Even when the program was made up of ballets I'd seen before, I somehow couldn't wait for the curtain to go up.

At a time when everybody else was trying to do Balanchine Neo-Classicism with leotard ballets and movements based classically, but modified, Joffrey was a Neo-Romantic. If he wanted a Balanchine-like work, he got a real Balanchine. You can't get more Balanchine-like than that! If there were a similarity between Joffrey and any other choreographer of his time, I would have to place him more with Ashton than with anyone else. In part because of this affinity, the Joffrey Ballet ended up with more Ashton in its repertoire than any company outside of the Royal Ballet. He was very proud of his Ashton collection, and said so.

This is very helpful. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all ADs believed in getting the original work rather than producing dull, pale copies and/or variations of their own? (No names, please.)

Somehow, that word "neo-Romantic" helps me to place the entire feel of the company -- the sense of a unifying spirit if not aestethic, even in the most diverse programs and despite its varied repertoire. It may explain the appeal of the Joffrey in a city in which the the top of the pyramid was already occupied by Balanchine and neo-classicism. The Joffrey of my memory was in no sense anti-Balanchine; it was more like a necessary companion to NYCB's neo-classicism. For me, if NYCB was the gold standard for ballet in New York, the Joffrey as the silver standard.

There are a couple of topics that I'd love to read your thoughts about.

Joffrey's Revivals
One thing that has always intrigued me is Joffrey's evident passion for reviving important 20th century works. "Green Table" made a huge impression on audiences. I'll never forget it and the feelings and thoughts it produced the first time I saw it. Ditto Rodeo, Parade, and the Ashton revivals. What explains Joffrey's passion for bringing such works back to life? Did the energy he devoted to revivals have any direct relation to his relatively small output of original choreographic work? How involved was he personally in the process of reconstructing these ballets? Any insights you might have sould be much appreciated.

Joffrey and Tharp
Deuce Coupe was so wonderful (at least it seemed so at the time) and such a stand out in the new rep of the company: is there anything you can tell us about the hows and whys?

Mixed-Bill Programming
During this period, how involved was Joffrey in putting together the mixed bills (that is, selecting which ballets would share the stage on a given evening -- or the balance of the season as a whole -- and in what order)? Was there a definite "Robert Joffrey" philosophy in how to go about doing this?

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 04:22 PM

Mel were you working for Mr. Joffrey when he did the Joffrey Workshops? I remember one of them being held at the Ruth Page Foundation School and being so surprised that Mr. Joffrey himself came to teach! I wasn't enrolled in the Workshop but I was at the school and I was working for Miss Page in her office at the time. Do you remember who else taught in them?


During my time with the company, we didn't do any "Joffrey Workshops" but whenever there was a "Joffrey" program of anything dealing with students, he wanted to be there and up front. He might bring along trusted associates from the company, like Diane Orio, Rebecca Wright, or Paul Sutherland, all of whom knew what The Boss was looking for. He was a presence at as many Regional Festivals as possible, talent scouting all the time. When the company came to Ravinia, for example, he'd already seen quite a few of the local students and asked them to come take company class, onstage.

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 04:25 PM

Mel,

Your writing is wonderful. Can we commission you to write an entire book about your Joffrey remembrances?


Thank you, thank you for the roses, but whole tell-all books are not for me. I still have to remember discretion, and I still retain my loyalty to Joffrey himself, and his memory.

#7 vrsfanatic

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 04:34 PM

Thank you Major Johnson for your inspirational memories. You have vast knowledge of such a wonderful period for American ballet. :thumbsup:

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 05:32 PM

There are a couple of topics that I'd love to read your thoughts about.

Joffrey's Revivals
One thing that has always intrigued me is Joffrey's evident passion for reviving important 20th century works. "Green Table" made a huge impression on audiences. I'll never forget it and the feelings and thoughts it produced the first time I saw it. Ditto Rodeo, Parade, and the Ashton revivals. What explains Joffrey's passion for bringing such works back to life? Did the energy he devoted to revivals have any direct relation to his relatively small output of original choreographic work? How involved was he personally in the process of reconstructing these ballets? Any insights you might have sould be much appreciated.

Joffrey and Tharp
Deuce Coupe was so wonderful (at least it seemed so at the time) and such a stand out in the new rep of the company: is there anything you can tell us about the hows and whys?

Mixed-Bill Programming
During this period, how involved was Joffrey in putting together the mixed bills (that is, selecting which ballets would share the stage on a given evening -- or the balance of the season as a whole -- and in what order)? Was there a definite "Robert Joffrey" philosophy in how to go about doing this?


Firstly, Joffrey had "outside" choreographers in to set ballets on the company even before the City Center days. Job Sanders, Brian MacDonald, Lew Christiansen and others had works in the Joffrey repertoire. The choreographers he chose were not represented, or at least well-represented in companies which could take them to the people, which is what the Joffrey companies did in spades. The artists he engaged did quality work in ballet, and demanded a large audience. He gave them that exposure. He early showed a fondness for Bournonville, and between him and Lillian Moore, who was the head teacher at the Joffrey School, they managed to secure the services of Hans Brenaa to come in and stage little Danish goodies like Flower Festival pas de deux. Later on, there would be the William Tell pas de six, and Act I of Konservatoriet. He had learned the virtue of variety early on, even, one could say, as a student of Mary Ann Wells, who gave him a daunting challenge as a high school senior to stage an entire program of ballet on his own.

"The Green Table" came about as happy circumstance, as the Chilean National Ballet had only recently come to New York, under the direction of Max Uthoff, who was, if I recall correctly, the original Standard Bearer in the great dance. In that company were Michael Uthoff, the director's son, and an impressively powerful dancer/actor, Maximiliano Zomosa. Michael was dancing his father's old part, and Max performed Jooss' own role as Death. To the best of my knowledge, New York had not seen Jooss' choreography since before World War II, and its effect was practically seismic. Joffrey signed Uthoff and Zomosa and was soon working with Anna Markard, Jooss' daughter, who staged the work on the Joffrey company. As he was a great presenter of ballets, so Joffrey was himself a great audience. He seemed to know intuitively what the audience wanted to see, and he went after it, especially if nobody else in this country was dancing it. He was doing niche marketing before it had a name.

Doing "Green Table" was a technical crossover for the Joffrey dancers, as the vocabulary is not classical ballet, but Central European Expressionist Theatrical Dance. It was one thing to take on a known work by a name choreographer, but you're right, doing "Deuce Coupe" was almost like speculation, as Twyla Tharp didn't have any track record at the time of setting her distinctive work on ballet companies. Alec Ewing had pushed, pulled, stretched, and generally manhandled the budget in order to have a "cushion" in case of a flop. And we all know that "Deuce Coupe" was far from that! Experimentation became easier thereafter.

I think that Mr. Joffrey had gained his liking for the Diaghilev ballets firstly through introduction via the Leonide Massine-led Ballet Russe which toured every whistle-stop town, and for ballet in the 1930s, Seattle was just that. Podunk West in the bigger producers' eyes. All the more reason for a young dancer to feel grateful that they came at all! He also read voluminously, and could sniff out movies of old ballets (this was the pre-video era) to enrich his knowledge and develop his taste. Massine looms large in his restagings for Joffrey, because Mr. Joffrey himself had been a crowd child in "Petrouchka" and Massine danced the title role. At the time we took on "Rodeo", it looked like ABT was going to give the old heave-ho to all the old Lucia Chase stalwarts (1980) to make way for Baryshnikov's stalwarts, and Mr. Joffrey did not want to have that ballet set out to pasture. Again, the self-imposed test of "What's not being done? We'll do that!"

As far as what can be done in a season's program, Joffrey liked to spread things out, so that if you missed, say, "Viva Vivaldi" early in the season, relax, it was likely to be there later in the season. One of the few programs he wouldn't put together was "Petrouchka", "The Lesson", and "Pineapple Poll", all set-heavy (the set for "The Lesson" literally weighed two tons!) and many, many light and other technical cues throughout. "Might bend the grid," he said. That, and Penny Curry, our stage manager would have come out at curtain calls and dived headfirst into the orchestra pit!

At the time, it made no sense at all to me to put "Deuce Coupe II", "Remembrances" and Cranko's "Jeu de Cartes" as a program. It wasn't until later that I realized that the free-wheeling Tharp, the smoldering, sultry "Remembrances" and then the smart, snappy Cranko just about covered the whole landscape of ballet as it existed in that time. There was always a wisdom in the way he built programs and seasons, and it wasn't a Gnosticism. There was no "secret knowledge" involved. You just had to think a little.

I hope that this starts to answer the questions you posed.

#9 bart

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 08:20 PM

Thanks, Mel, for your truly wonderful accounts.

The story about Green Table is completely fascinating. it shows the power of accidents -- or, more accurately, the power of certain people to imagine possibilities and seize opportunities that many of the rest of us would not even have noticed.

... the self-imposed test of "What's not being done? We'll do that!"

Another quality I admire. Today you are all too likely to hear: "It's not being done because it wasn't popular, and that means it won't be popular here either. Let's do the same thing everyone else is doing." The Joffrey audience of the 60s and70s was adventurous because the trusted the company's adventurous leaders.

It wasn't until later that I realized that the free-wheeling Tharp, the smoldering, sultry "Remembrances" and then the smart, snappy Cranko just about covered the whole landscape of ballet as it existed in that time.

I love it. :thumbsup:

It would be great to hear from others who remember the Joffrey company in these years -- or from others who have questions. :)

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 November 2007 - 08:00 PM

A further point that I'd like to springboard over the idea that Joffrey was the de facto "second company" for NYC: We did two seasons a year at City Center, and most of the rest of the time touring the rest of the country, and some others as well. One of the most important factors in remaining in NYC even when we were on tour was the American Ballet Center, the Joffrey School at 434 6th Ave. (at 10th St.) The place was the neighborhood ballet school, only the neighborhood was the West Village. There was a small but vocal core of local boosters who loyally attended anything Joffrey because it was The Village, no matter where it was being performed. Joffrey lived on MacDougall St., so a lot of neighbors came just because it was the neighborly thing to do. It's peculiar to think in such parochial terms in a place like NYC, but it was there.

Having a school in town gave the early (1954) Joffrey companies a single, stable place to rehearse, to take class, and to call "home". Even with mass transit, a lot of Joffrey dancers had a pied à terre nearby, thus adding to the neighborly atmosphere.

A later addition to the Joffrey stable was the Joffrey II company. It was made up of company-ready dancers who received a small stipend and a number of company-supplied shoes for the right to exclusivity in where they would take class. Originally, the second company kids were under the direction of Lillian Moore, the eminent dance historian and teacher (later directors included Jonathan Watts and Sally Brayley Bliss). It was Moore who convinced Joffrey that the dancers should be performing real works in their own programs. His idea was that they should take class after class after class, and Miss Moore rightly saw that as a kind of treadmill, with no perceptible advantage obvious to the students, an exercise in frustration. So Joffrey II filled the niche that had been left by the main company's performing in more prominent venues, and carried on the Joffrey tradition of taking ballet into places it had never been seen live before. The second company phenomenon came as a byproduct of the Harkness skunking. Mrs. Harkness formed not only her own eponymous company, but also the cadre called the "Harkness Trainees", who would perform in NYC independently of her main company, and also serve as the necessary supers and corps-fillers when there was that need. She had sedulously avoided the term "apprentices" because that brought in union considerations, and Joffrey did the same. Some of the Joffrey II dancers were actual apprentices, were compensated therefor, and you could tell who they were by suddenly noting the new name among the fairies in "The Dream", or even in the procession in "Illuminations" or in the crowd of the Cranko Romeo and Juliet or, to a lesser extent The Taming of the Shrew. "Petrouchka" was another matter. Yes, the Joffrey II dancers were there to swell the crowd and dance the masquers, but the crowd was mostly from the school, and even sometimes just neighbors from the block! Once we recruited the manager of the bank next to the school and his wife to play a prosperous merchant and family, and one time we got Mr. Balducci (of the grocery store) to play a vendor. This kind of casting hearks back to the first point, that of the Joffrey acting as a kind of community theater. It all worked toward the Joffrey ambience that was so effective in building audience. Even when I was only being the bear in the last scene, I had friends from Tuxedo Park and New Haven who came in just to see me do that. (By the way, it was a terrific bear costume, made the dancer move like a real bear. Mr. Joffrey had seen it in Buenos Aires, and moved heaven, earth and the budget to get it. One time, I looked out of my "mouth" and there he was, being the bear trainer. He hadn't told anybody he was going to do that, and the astonishment onstage read well into the audience.)


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