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Alistair Macaulay's NY Times piece on the "perilous conditionof the Ashton legacy


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#16 Drew

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 10:52 AM

SandyMckean: I don't doubt Boal's seriousness or honesty, qualities that he had as a dancer as well. I did wonder if he had other things in mind when he said he "didn't know" Ashton only because I found the statement so surprizing from such a serious ballet artist--no cynicism behind my comments or as best I can tell elsewhere in this thread.

And, though I haven't seen PNB, I have read many positive things about Boal's directorship of the company, a company which I also see repeatedly described and reviewed as "major." To me, "major" means it is a company of more than merely regional interest. (I live in a city with no such company.) In that context, I was disconcerted by his remark -- since Ashton is one of the greatest choreographers in the ballet tradition, arguably the one twentieth-century peer of Balanchine. (Of course, I don't expect Boal to have or to claim the deep familiarity with Ashton he has with Balanchine or Robbins, and I'm not particularly invested in whether or not PNB dances Ashton or should dance Ashton about which I can have no opinion.)

I tend to think that what would help the Ashton legacy most at this time would be for the Royal Ballet to invest more heavily in dancing his ballets on a regular basis and drawing on the experience of earlier Ashton interpreters who are still around (those who worked with him directly) to help rehearse and coach the ballets. (I assume they do the latter to some degree but don't really know.) Just a few years ago, I did see the Royal dance what I thought were fine performances of Symphonic Variations (with Cojocaru and Yoshida in the Fonteyn role) and A Month in the Country (with Bussell and a not very Ashtonesque but definitely very compelling Guillem in the Seymour role) and a pretty good performance of The Dream. But as noted above they seem to have been dancing Ashton less in recent seasons.

I'm headed to New York to see Sylvia for the first time next week as danced by ABT-- can't wait.

#17 Dale

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 11:05 AM

There's an article somewhere that I read (I think I either read it in a journal, Dance Now or a book) regarding the changes that had crept in La Fille Mal Gardee. The writer (it might have been Geraldine Morris) was supposed to document the current production and began noticing parts in the ballet that differed slightly between older dance scores and several videos that span the generations. Fille is a good ballet to study for this because it's been filmed several times for TV through the generations (not to mention house recordings). There is a fine line in staging between making the dancers do everything exactly the same way Ashton had (thus stifling the dancers) and sucking the life out of the dancers and making changes in order to keep the spirit alive.

#18 miliosr

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 11:15 AM

To me, the importance of what Peter Boal said regarding Ashton has nothing to do with Boal himself and everything to do with the swift decline of the Ashton repertory in the international ballet repertory. The underlying subtext of Boal's remark is that he sees no need to become more conversant with Ashton. And why should he? The Ashton repertory is in retreat everywhere and adding it to repertory would only detract from Peter Boal's real interests -- City Ballet dance (Balanchine, Robbins) , Euro-dance (Forsythe) and downtown New York dance.

I agree. Balanchine (and Robbins) have one of the world’s great companies dedicated to performing their works. Other companies of varying size and strength may have Balanchine in and out of their repertories, depending on the AD, but for NYCB to be dancing the repertory year in, year out, is crucial, regardless of what you may think about Martins' stewardship of the company.


This to me is the key -- having a flagship company performing the works year in and year out. Balanchine and Robbins have an institutional home that will perform their works regularly and forever. Not so lucky for Ashton (the Royal) or Tudor (ABT). That's why I find Merce Cunningham's decision to disband his company so baffling. Without a Cunningham company to perform the works in perpetuity, how soon before the drift starts?

#19 bart

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 11:17 AM

dirac writes:

Unlike Balanchine, Ashton did not teach, which may have had some long term consequences. Alexander Grant has said that dancers do not have to be trained in an “Ashton style” – properly coached, they can dance his ballets.

It would be wonderful if this turned out to be true. What do others think?

I am aware that sometimes the performances are so lame that the ballet is effectively wrecked, but I don't think we have reached that point yet with Ashton -- or Balanchine -- and am not inclined to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I think his [Peter Boal's] remark reflects that thoughtful care so that he doesn't take either the dancers or the audience "too far, too fast". Being on the modest side I think he is sticking with that which he knows best, and that which he is confident will move the company in the direction he has charted. He's simply not going to mess with stuff he isn't totally confident is within his sphere of knowledge.

Reading Drew and Sandy in the light of dirac's comment, I began to think about how one MIGHT re-introduce Ashton into the current repertoire.

If one wanted to bring the audience as much in touch as possible to the Ashton style, and assuming that coaches were obtainable who could do the best possible job, which Ashton ballets would you suggest for a company either in the first tier (Paris, New York, ABT) or in the second (U.S. regionals and smaller European companies)?

Drew has mentioned "The Dream," which seems like a brilliant choice given its relatively small scale (compared to Balanchine, anyway) and the spotlight it puts on the two leads. What else? Thinking of Helene's point about the need to please dancers, wouldn't the Isadora Duncan pieces to Brahms please almost any ballerina capable of dancing them, especially since they make a great impact in such a short time? Patineurs? Symphonic Variations? Even if one of the 3-acts were considered too big a risk, couldn't you present selectdions from Cinderella, Sylvia, or Ondine? I would think that dancers might love material like that. It would be a start, anyway.

#20 Helene

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 12:49 PM

Although I think it likely that, as Helene suggested, when Boal said he "didn't know" Ashton's work, he probably meant he was not terribly familiar with it or some such, I still consider the remark absolutely shocking. It reflects very, very badly on the state of ballet "culture" generally--something IS really wrong when the director of a major ballet company feels comfortable saying he does not "know" Ashton's work -- but I am afraid I don't think it reflects that well on Boal himself.

When you think of where he was coming from, it was a company that had a resident and, while he was a student, living god, one who was not particularly kind to most dancers who went out of the temple for outside classes and coaching, and didn't welcome back dancers who left to dance the classics, as Ruthanna Boris described. Suzanne Farrell said something to the effect that Balanchine told her that he could teach her everything she needed to know, and she accepted that and never looked elsewhere. After Balanchine's death, there was a renewed religiosity in the company regarding his work, and from that environment, Boal left for Europe to do something that appealed to him, much as the contemporary rep he's brought to PNB seems to do. (I was surprised when he returned to NYCB; I thought he would stay in Europe for the rest of his career.)

If Boal received an education in Ashton at NYCB, it was that Balanchine didn't think those ballets worth preserving in his company, or the Company would have programmed them.

The Ashton repertory is in retreat everywhere and adding it to repertory would only detract from Peter Boal's real interests -- City Ballet dance (Balanchine, Robbins) , Euro-dance (Forsythe) and downtown New York dance.

I think this is it in nutshell: he's managing where his interests lie, while retaining the big full-lengths that bring in the money and that his long-term audience counts on (the Stowell "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker", the Hynd "Sleeping Beauty").

(By the by, I think it is not only the Balanchine Trust that deserves credit for the "life" of the Balanchine repertory or even the number of former Balanchine dancers directing other companies, but also the simple fact of NYCB dancing huge swathes of his repertory steadily over the years and periodically taking it on tour: I know many people have been disatisfied with some of their performances over the years, but in New York there is a lot of Balanchine and a lot of varied Balanchine on a steady basis; a very different picture from Ashton at the Royal Ballet. An old saying has it that you can't be more Catholic than the Pope--if the Royal doesn't keep Ashton alive, well, that's not much of an inspiration or guide to anyone else.)

I actually see it as combination of having NYCB and putting in the roots quite early by giving ballets to a number of companies worldwide and by hiring ballet masters like Francia Russell to do the stagings. That happened for decades before Balanchine's death and the Trust was formed. In many ways, the Trust sounded like business-as-usual, while Ashton had been pushed out and neglected by the time he died, which I think is why the Ashton Trust has been so weak.

One of the things leonid points out is the power struggle at Royal Ballet between the Ashtonians and Macmillan, and I think that one of things that was key in NYCB's success was Jerome Robbins, two things in particular: Robbins did not want to take over for Balanchine, and he was, essentially, running a company-within-a-company at NYCB. He got to encourage and promote "his" dancers, especially in Balanchine's last decade, he had ballet masters dedicated to his rep, Balanchine gave him first pick of dancers during festivals, Robbins' ballets were programmed regularly, and I've never read that when he wanted to create a ballet there, he was blocked. There was no need to overthrow Balanchine.


(It may also be, however, that he doesn’t think, for his own reasons, that Ashton is right for his company but doesn’t want to say so bluntly.)

He doesn't seem to "shade" his speech with an eye to how it might be preceived. I really like this about him. I trust him. He gives me the real scoop. At the same time he adroitly stays away from pronouncements that could cause him or his company grief or internal strife.

I can't say whether he was being diplomatic in this case, but I don't think he says everything he thinks out loud, and I've guessed a number of times that he was being diplomatic in his answers. That doesn't make me trust him less, because while I'd like to know a lot of the "real" answers, he doesn't owe me an explanation, and in many cases, no matter what he were to answer, he would be causing the company unneeded grief.

I tend to think that what would help the Ashton legacy most at this time would be for the Royal Ballet to invest more heavily in dancing his ballets on a regular basis and drawing on the experience of earlier Ashton interpreters who are still around (those who worked with him directly) to help rehearse and coach the ballets...I'm headed to New York to see Sylvia for the first time next week as danced by ABT-- can't wait.

Have long-time Royal Ballet watchers seen the ABT version? If so, how does it compare to the original performances, and will what we're seeing maintain a lifeline? I saw "Sylvia" in London a few years ago, and loved the ballet, but I didn't have a clear sense of how it had changed, and wondered whether I was like something that was quite different from what the ballet was supposed to be. I didn't get to see the Royal Ballet in the 50's or 60's or even the early 70's, and I only saw late Dowell in the 80's from that legacy.

Alexander Grant has said that dancers do not have to be trained in an “Ashton style” – properly coached, they can dance his ballets.

Grant may be right, but he is also a controversial figure in Macaulay's article, and I would love to hear long-time Royal Ballet watchers weigh in on this.

#21 leonid17

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 01:05 PM

I was moved by Quiggin’s post because it reflects a mind that is clearly appreciative of the ART of ballet in an aesthetic manner and I would like to quote some extracts fro his post, “ San Francisco Ballet did a handsome Symphonic Variations several years ago, Anthony Dowell directed it, and you could see its architectural strengths quite clearly. You can see why so much of SV depended on dancers like Margot Fonteyn. But no one holds themselves like that anymore; no one operates out of that lovely reserve. The manner of being in the world of her generation no longer exists. Ashton may be more fragile in that way much more than Balanchine or even Tudor.”

Here are twenty reasons for me, why Ashton is a significant choreographer and why his unique style is worth re-capturing for all time through performance:-

Façade, Les Patineurs, Les Rendezvous, Symphonic Variations, Scene de Ballet, Cinderella, Illuminations, Daphnis and Chloe, Sylvia, Birthday Offering, La Fille mal Gardee, Le deux Pigeons, Marguerite and Armand, The Dream, Monotones 1, Monotones II, Enigma Variations, A Month in the Country, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora, Rhapsody.


I could have added a few more to this list of ballets less popular, which I personally enjoyed, but only when they had exemplary casts performing them.

Helene quite rightly says, “Ashton's works take discipline, modesty, and a certain amount of self-abnegation, as well as a commitment to a style of movement that is Volkova's legacy. “ I would add that it requires serious even subtle artists to make Ashton ballets work and dancers have to absorb the style as Helene says, as well as mastering the sometime trick steps.

What makes Ashton a high-art choreographer is that only artists can be truly subtle and speak through choreography in such a way that its language is always resonating at a higher level to that of straight forward virtuosity. His choreography as well, demands of the viewer a different, more subtle reflective, appreciation mode, because for Ashton, ballet is an art and not an entertainment.

With Ashton you are not after all going to go hell for leather, as in a virtuoso variation but even at speed, Ashton’s choreography keeps you in the mode of his emotional and psychological world where resolution, as in Symphonic Variations, grows organically out of truly slow opening movements. In this ballet, he takes you into a reflective world of feeling and symbolised relationships in a highly subtle way and then ends with a joyous, life giving, finale. The music has spoken, the dance has echoed and we have experienced a journey in an almost religious atmosphere. Ashton has taken precisely where he wanted to and this is what all great artists achieve.

Ashton's refined choreography does not belong to the past and he is of course not alone in this. When there are truly only a handful of masters in this genre of classical ballet, you wonder how this creative artist is becoming lost in the company to which no other choreographer has given so much.

I cannot agree with everything Mr Macaulay has said and I am sorry to see his quoting what after all sounds like gossip regarding that distinguished ballet artist Alexander Grant who has contributed more to ballet than any critic has.

He reports, “ In 1997, at the Roehampton conference on revivals and reconstructions of ballet, the notator Michele Braban recounted how she had had to spend so long analyzing the differences among various filmed versions of “Fille” that she had finally been required, for sake of economy, simply to record the version currently being danced as the new standard text; this story became more distressing when it emerged that nobody had even given her a copy of Margaret Dale’s definitive film of the original “Fille” production.”

Ho Hum. This film is certainly important, but it was shot in a studio and adapted for the small screen with many shots focusing on one aspect of the stage (set) with the loss of other stage actions. So not so definitive after all.

Firstly I would say that the RB Company’s and dancers mind set is not the same as it was in 1961 nor are the talents equal to the original cast which I witnessed. The last performance that I saw was a disgrace and that was not production changes it was performance. The corps had no sense of relationship to the work they were dancing and the principals were a long way from the interpretation of either Nadia Nerina or Ann Jenner in the role nor the right kind of period cheekiness of David Blair.

Michael Somes, whose strictness and overriding affection for the Ashton repertoire was legendary, finds Mr Macaulay commenting on another distinguished RB artist whose departure in my opinion led to a general decline in the company’s performance of Ashton especially by the corps de ballet.

Drew hit the mark when he states, “I tend to think that what would help the Ashton legacy most at this time would be for the Royal Ballet to invest more heavily in dancing his ballets on a regular basis and drawing on the experience of earlier Ashton interpreters who are still around (those who worked with him directly) to help rehearse and coach the ballets.” Only problem is, not everyone can coach or even wants to. One person who does coach is Dame Antoinette Sibley.

Mr Macaulay goes on to report, “When dancers of Ashton’s 1952 “Sylvia” say that the 2004 version — reconstructed from a film of a 1963 rehearsal — and its latest revivals feature steps on the downbeat that should be on the upbeat, who will listen?”

Having seen the film in question, which if my memory serves me right was silent, the quality was so poor and the speed of the dancing was odd to say the very least and it showed Doreen Wells in the leading role.

I am not at all surprised that the revival was questioned. I saw the performances of this 1963 production with Doreen Wells in the lead and in the same production I saw Dame Margot Fonteyn as Silvia partnered by Atillio Labis who caused an absolute stir with his looks, partnering and technique. Roberto Bolle in 2004, created the same response, whilst partnering Darcey Bussell miscast as Sylvia.

On the first night of the 2004 revival, overheard in the interval in the Floral Hall between the sipping of champagne could be heard a cacophony of complaints among the older regular audiencel regarding errors of staging and the reproduction of the designs.

There are always problems reviving ballets and no one imagines any of the famous reconstructions of this last decade or so resembles their original productions. How can they, when dancing and production values were quite different to recent times and all the ranks of performers then, had reputedly outstanding personalities can we say the same today?

I concur with his last statement, “Must we, only 21 years after Ashton’s death, settle for Third Quarto versions of ballets that once made him the toast on both sides of the Atlantic?”

#22 SandyMcKean

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 01:43 PM

The Ashton repertory is in retreat everywhere and adding it to repertory would only detract from Peter Boal's real interests -- City Ballet dance (Balanchine, Robbins) , Euro-dance (Forsythe) and downtown New York dance.

I think this is it in nutshell: he's managing where his interests lie, while retaining the big full-lengths that bring in the money and that his long-term audience counts on (the Stowell "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker", the Hynd "Sleeping Beauty").

This is my feeling too.



He doesn't seem to "shade" his speech with an eye to how it might be preceived.

I can't say whether he was being diplomatic in this case, but I don't think he says everything he thinks out loud, and I've guessed a number of times that he is being diplomatic in his answers.

I agree that Boal is basically very diplomatic; OTOH, when I say that he does not "shade his speech", I mean that he doesn't say things simply for effect, to accomplish some unspoken objective, or for how it makes him look. He answers questions in a straight forward manner while maintaining his diplomatic style. If he wants to duck an answer, he says so. If he doesn't want to "go there", he just doesn't go there. I have found I can take him at his word. Hidden agendas, ulterior motives, or sophisicated complexity just don't seem to be part of his repertory.

#23 bart

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 04:20 PM

There are a couple of nice reports on Birmingham Royal Ballet's recent performances of Two Pigeons here:
http://ballettalk.in...p...c=29771&hl=

Thanks to Members Nanarina and JMcN. :devil:

Does anyone else have their own recent (or not so recent) Ashton performance reports? It would be marvellous to read them in the context of this discussion. How IS Ashton doing in performance nowadays, as you see it.? :dry:

For the record, ABT is perfoming Sylvia at the Met from June 29 - July 4).

#24 dirac

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 06:58 PM

Mr Macaulay goes on to report, “When dancers of Ashton’s 1952 “Sylvia” say that the 2004 version — reconstructed from a film of a 1963 rehearsal — and its latest revivals feature steps on the downbeat that should be on the upbeat, who will listen?”

Having seen the film in question, which if my memory serves me right was silent, the quality was so poor and the speed of the dancing was odd to say the very least and it showed Doreen Wells in the leading role.


From what I’ve read, the reconstruction of Sylvia was done pretty liberally, with a lot of guesswork involved.

#25 Hans

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 07:30 PM

The fact that Peter Boal is not terribly familiar with Ashton's work does bother me, but it does not surprise me. I would not be surprised if such a statement came from Helgi Tomasson, Kent Stowell, Francia Russell, Edward Villella, or Peter Martins, either, because of what Helene mentioned in one of her posts: dancers at NYCB were/are not encouraged to educate themselves regarding ballet outside the world of Balanchine under the assumption that it is not worth watching. This is, of course, ridiculous, but the fact is that when you consider all the companies led by former NYCB dancers who only want to program Balanchine, watered-down Petipa, Robbins, or new choreography (regardless of quality) it is really not surprising that Ashton is unknown here, apart from ABT (which apparently performs only The Dream, Sylvia, and occasionally Les Patineurs) and the Joffrey Ballet, which does not have much of a visible presence outside Chicago.

Re: Ashton style, it appears to me that Ashton is similar to Bournonville in two ways: the importance of the upper body (port de bras, épaulement, expressive face) and petit allegro. Few dancers today can do both competently, much less well.

There may be a small glimmer of hope in the fact that many Ashton ballets are filmed (even if the quality is not the best) and notated, considering that several Petipa ballets have recently been restored to coherence (somewhat). Of course they do not look the way they did in the 19C, but many cobwebs have been cleared from them, and when they are performed as living works of art, as the Bolshoi's "Le Corsaire" was this past week, they sparkle and enchant. We are now in a much better position to restore Ashton's ballets (although we may not be much longer) than we are to restore Petipa's works, and I hope we will not allow Ashton's works to be edited as heavily as Petipa's were over the years. Another bright spot may perhaps be found in the Royal Danish Ballet's continuous performances of Bournonville throughout the centuries, but if the Royal Ballet does not get its act together and take on such a role, audiences 100 years from now will not have the opportunity to appreciate Ashton the way Copenhagen has appreciated and preserved for us such treasures as La Sylphide, Napoli, &c.

#26 Quiggin

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 11:11 PM

I would not be surprised if such a statement [Boal's] came from Helgi Tomasson...


Helgi did have Symphonic Variations done for two years running at San Francisco--and Thais pas de deux and Monotones I and II. I have the sense his taste is fairly catholic.

Re: Ashton style, it appears to me that Ashton is similar to Bournonville in two ways: the importance of the upper body (port de bras, épaulement, expressive face) and petit allegro. Few dancers today can do both competently, much less well.


Yes--in a nutshell.

#27 leonid17

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 11:45 PM

If the Royal Ballet continues to ignore a large part of the Ashton repertoire, perhaps the beginning of a solution to Ashton's projected demise lies in the USA. Read on. Yes ! It is Mr Macaulay again.

http://www.nytimes.c...3asht.html?_r=1

#28 bart

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Posted 23 June 2009 - 03:17 AM

Thanks, leonid, for that Link. It appears that Mr. Macaulay has a campaign going on. A small company in a small city in a winter-resort. Who would have thought!

To say that I am grateful to Sarasota Ballet for staging these ballets is a gross understatement. Stylistically, the company looked not mature but utterly awakened. I could have said “Bend! More!,” but it was evident that those and other appropriate words had already been spoken. The leading dancers have speed, charm, full-bodied immersion and multifaceted detail, and everyone shows a remarkable grasp of Ashton’s multilayered musicality.

Wow! So, as dirac has suggested, perhaps it CAN be done.

:) Thanks, Hans, for the following. You really have encapsulated (or skewered) the dominant aesthetic at Miami, and -- I gather -- at a couple of other places.

[ ... ] when you consider all the companies led by former NYCB dancers who only want to program Balanchine, watered-down Petipa, Robbins, or new choreography (regardless of quality) [ ... ]



#29 miliosr

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Posted 23 June 2009 - 04:30 AM

The fact that Peter Boal is not terribly familiar with Ashton's work does bother me, but it does not surprise me. I would not be surprised if such a statement came from Helgi Tomasson, Kent Stowell, Francia Russell, Edward Villella, or Peter Martins, either, because of what Helene mentioned in one of her posts: dancers at NYCB were/are not encouraged to educate themselves regarding ballet outside the world of Balanchine under the assumption that it is not worth watching. This is, of course, ridiculous, but the fact is that when you consider all the companies led by former NYCB dancers who only want to program Balanchine, watered-down Petipa, Robbins, or new choreography (regardless of quality) it is really not surprising that Ashton is unknown here, apart from ABT (which apparently performs only The Dream, Sylvia, and occasionally Les Patineurs) and the Joffrey Ballet, which does not have much of a visible presence outside Chicago.



Truer words were never written. Let's go over the roll call again: Former City Ballet dancers sit in positions of power in New York, Washington, DC, North Carolina (2), Miami, Chicago, Colorado, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Whether out of ignorance or indifference, none of them will ever be committed to Ashton as anything more than a novelty. To borrow a term from Star Trek, Ashton is not part of their prime directive.

Given this state of affairs, I think it's unlikely in the extreme that the United States will spearhead an Ashton revival -- the center of gravity has moved too far toward St. Petersburg, New York for that to happen. It's tempting to think that little Sarasota Ballet will be able to preserve the Ashton works and style but I'm highly doubtful that they will be able to accomplish that any more than little New York Theatre Ballet will be able to preserve the Tudor works and style.

#30 SandyMcKean

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Posted 23 June 2009 - 05:34 AM

I wonder if all these ex-NYCB directors use email, twitter, or the good old fashioned telephone to keep their conspiracy moving in a consistent direction??


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