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Interpreting Ballet?


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#1 Estelle

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Posted 06 April 2002 - 04:34 AM

Lolly, I've read about those golden cherries too, but have never noticed them when I saw the work at the Paris Opera, so it makes two of us... And Forsythe is well-known for his rather bizarre titles, like "The loss of small detail", "Self meant to govern", "The vile parody of address", etc.

About interpretation, I think that it depends a lot of which kind of work it is. There are some plotless works, like "Theme and variations" or "Concerto Barocco", for which I'm perfectly happy just enjoying the musicality, the visual patterns and the grace of the dancers and don't feel I need more explanation to "understand" it. But with works which are more theatrical, it's easier to feel a bit lost and to have the feeling that there's something to understand and that I'm missing it (especially when it's not especially musical and when there is nothing interesting about the steps or the construction)- that often happens with some modern/ contemporary works...

#2 Estelle

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Posted 10 April 2002 - 02:38 PM

Wow! Drew has just written all I wanted to say, except that it's written one thousand times better that anything I could write...

By the way, that might be a stupid question, but is there much academic writing about ballet in the US and in other countries? Because in France, I think it's about nonexisting. In general, performing arts are very rarely represented in universities, and especially dance (theater probably is more common). I think there might be dance sections in two universities in Paris and another in Lyon, but that probably is about all. And as far as I know, they deal almost only about modern/ contemporary dance or with baroque dance. It seems that in the academic world, ballet isn't considered as "serious/ intellectual" enough (and it reflects a general mentality in France).

#3 Estelle

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Posted 26 March 2002 - 03:59 PM

Drew, your post really is fascinating! :)

I find that the historical/ social approach and psychological one can both be interesting, as long as they don't pretend to be the one and only interpretation of a work and are not too simplistic... And sometimes the psychological comments sound a bit too much like "regarder par le petit bout de la lorgnette" (argh, I'm getting too sleepy to be able to translate that).

That thread reminded me of some debates about a writer I'm interested in, Georges Perec. Perec died in 1982, aged 46, and since then some of his works have become rather famous and there is an association dedicated to his memory, and a monthly seminar about his works, plus a lot of biographies, essays, etc. And much has been written about the influence of some elements of his biography on his works, and especially the tragic death of his parents when he was a little child (both were Jews from Poland, his father was killed as a soldier in 1940, his mother was sent to a death camp in 1942, when he was six). Indeed one of his novels includes an autobiographical part (and a reflection about memories), and there are some "hidden" biographical details in some works- for example the date of the deportation of his mother appears several times as a number in some works. That's interesting, but my problem is that there are some people who seem to spend their entire life looking for such things, and interpreting every detail of Perec's works by his biography. It becomes so reductive- and really Perec's works stand by their own, even when one doesn't know at all his biography. I wish he hadn't died so young, not only he would probably have written a lot of interesting things, but also
there wouldn't have been so many narrow interpretation of his works...

#4 Estelle

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Posted 01 April 2002 - 01:48 PM

Lolly, thanks for your post.

Originally posted by Lolly

Okay. But is it less valid if my view of something is not what the choreographer intended? Well, I will venture a yes. Yes because either the choreographer didn't get across the "meaning" adequately, or their intention in making the work didn't match my intention in watching it. Because "feeling" something and being moved by something is all very nice but I want to know what it is that is making me feel it. I already know if I am depressed, or in love, or whatever - I don't need or want to project that onto the ballet. I want to know if the choreographer was feeling that when the ballet was made. I want to see the ballet as it was intended.


Lolly, I understand your point, but when reading your post, it made me think about music: there are a lot of musical works I appreciate without knowing anything about the choreographer's intent,
or even sometimes about the period when it was created, the context, etc. But perhaps people are more likely to look for a clear "meaning" and an explanation for dance works than for musical works (and also perhaps not knowing much about the context, biography, intentions, etc. of musical works makes me miss many things and that I'd enjoy it more if I knew more).


Estelle's post about Perec was interesting for me because it made me think, if he had hidden biographical references in his work, who had he put them there for? If writing was cathartic for him, why hadn't he said them outright - he must have meant them to be found? Or not - the details are just what makes us individual and no one else needs to know what makes us this way - your work isn't "you".  


Well, we're getting a bit off-topic here, but I think that one of the motivations for Perec perhaps was that using formal constraints (he was a member of the literary group Oulipo, whose purpose was/is to write works with constraints) was a way for him to overcome the "white page syndrom" when starting a work, and also to focus on something else than his own feelings of sadness, grief, etc. when writing (an example which was given by another member of Oulipo was that of love letters: basically he said that imposing formal constraints to oneself when writing such letters- rhymes, verses, letters, acrostiche, or anything else- might be a good way to avoid becoming too easily sentimental and using
uninteresting cliches, having to use constraints means that you have to pay more attention to the form of your work and you have to be careful about every word. By the way, one of Perec's best known works is "La disparition", a novel which doesn't include the letter "e"). Also perhaps it was a sort of intellectual, challenging game with himself- and also maybe, in the example I gave (the reference to the date his mother's death) the reference might be dedicated to the memory of his late mother, like a secret between him and her... Well, those are just hypotheses, and only Perec himself would have been able to tell his real motivations!

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 01 April 2002 - 12:51 PM

I've been wanting to respond to this thread and haven't had the time to do so thoroughly -- and won't for a day or two. It's made for fascinating reading. I did want to say to Lolly -- thank you for taking the time to write that. I don't think it's convoluted at all. It touches on all the conflicts we have of wanting to know and not wanting to know, and what we want from the artist and what he wants from us.

#6 dirac

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Posted 05 April 2002 - 03:02 PM

I think it's fine if the artist wants to tell us what he thinks his work means; we don't have to agree with him, and it can be thought provoking. And I appreciate that he's taking the risk of people saying, Well, I don't see that in this ballet at all, so obviously it hasn't succeeded.


I can remember reading the letters of Wallace Stevens, in which he provides explications of some famous poems, and thinking, Did I read what he he was writing? It didn't cause me to do a wholesale revision of my own views, or make me feel locked in to his interpretation. Of course, other people may react differently.


Leigh, I didn't think that Schiff was making a blanket generalization about women characters created by gay men but speculating (and note the cautious "may have") as to the possibility that a variation on the Albertine strategy was being employed in that particular instance (not that I agree with him).

#7 dirac

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Posted 27 March 2002 - 12:44 PM

I don't prefer one type over another (not sure if that means I'm admirable for the catholicity of my taste, or too wimpy to choose). As Drew correctly observes, any critical approach has the capacity to be reductive, and sometimes you have to be reductive, in the sense of narrowing your focus, to gain insight. This is perfectly okay, as long as you're not insisting that your perspective is the only "right" one. And as Paul said, most artists, out of necessity, are going to reject the psychological or biographical approach, and rightly so, from their point of view. (But that doesn't mean the rest of us have to.) :)

I don't necessarily agree with Schiff's observations, but neither one appears to me to be completely off the wall, and he's engaged in a legitimate area of inquiry. I recall the original exchange of letters between Schiff and Vivian Perlis in the Atlantic, and I thought Perlis pretty much wigged out. She didn't agree with Schiff's approach, or his view of Copland. That's the way it goes.

#8 Manhattnik

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Posted 26 March 2002 - 01:55 PM

I do enjoy thinking of a dance in the context of the time and milieu in which it was created. And it's certainly not irrelevant to consider what may have been going on within a work's creator as well as without. For instance, I just finished Anthony Holden's biography of Tchaikovsky (I'm in training for Eifman), and my appreciation of Tchaikovsky's music can't help to be better, I think, for being informed about his sexual frolics, fears and foibles (forgive the alliteration -- it's been a long day).

But one man's revelation is another's Too Much Information, and there are indeed times when a cowgirl is only, and should only be, a cowgirl.

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 April 2002 - 08:11 AM

Lolly -

As for Duato, I think that what he said has become the party line for choreographers at least since Balanchine. There's actually some truth and reason to it, but it's being said almost automatically at this point and risks pretension.

One of the greatest virtues of dance as an art form is it doesn't have to mean anything, or can mean many things at once. Asking a choreographer to translate that fluidity and flexibility of meaning into words can be dissatisfying. I've said this before - if what I wanted to accomplish by making a dance could be effectively said in words I would have written an essay.

There's also a danger in interpreting a dance for your audience, it can take the multiple associations possible with dance and narrow them down to one. People listen to the choreographer and go "Oh. This is about death (or sex, or joy, or whatever was said)" and they stop actively interpreting themselves. And I believe doing that is a disservice to the audience.

On the other side of that argument, I've learned that "I'm not going to tell you what it means" is pretty much the equivalent of being a bad host at a party. True to my philosophy, I never used to have program notes in the programs at my concerts. Too many people left miserable and frustrated about things I thought were obvious. I'd much rather be a welcoming host than true to a philosophy so I began adding them very carefully. I try to keep them brief, and often concentrate on the music, but I also will translate or define a title (I learned about that when I made a Les Noces in 1996 and realized to my horror that most of the audience didn't know what that meant. Like I said, I just felt like a miserable host) and, though I won't say what the ballet is "about", I will talk about what inspired me to make the ballet. An example, the program notes for a work I did last year called Green talked about an old lithograph of Fanny Elssler as the sea-sprite Ondine that was the catalyst for the work. It gave people who needed it something to grab on to, but didn't force those who wanted to find other things into my interpretation. I should know - the New York Times still said it was set in the woods after all the references in the program and press releases to "aqueous" and water sprites!

So therein lies the conflict for the choreographer. Of course, there are some choreographers for whom this isn't a problem, and they'll simply inundate you with pages and pages about their process. I'm never sure which is worse, the "college textbook" approach (I've seen flowcharts describing improvistory methods in program notes!) or the "I will tell you nothing" approach, which is often just the lazy choreographer's way out of finding something appropriate and helpful to say.

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 April 2002 - 06:49 AM

I'm sorry I didn't get to respond to these posts earlier. (Well actually, I started to but my computer decided to lose it in the middle of the response. I guess this is the cyberspace equivalent of "The dog ate my homework.")

Liebling, I think your approach makes tremendous sense, especially for an active performer and for the Balanchine repertory. I know from my own work that I have one ballet with very abrupt mood changes in it. When it was revived the dancers started to experiment with various dramatic reasons for them - all of them good, but to keep them from wandering way off, I made it clear that the reason the mood changes in the ballet is because the mood changes in the music, and actually the main reason I made the ballet was to make some sense of those mood swings that had fascinated me in that piece of music.

Lolly, on Forsythe's cherries - The original scenic plan for In the middle. . . was three walls of golden objects. I believe production concerns and expense pared those objects down to the smallest and simplest, which were hung. . .in the middle, somewhat elevated. I'd say it was more of a private joke than an action with meaning for the audience. It seems to me that Forsythe likes puns and that his titles tend to be picked more for their personal appeal and resonance than to be communicative with an audience. And on the Times setting Green in the woods? I was just amused. There was no scenery (we had to scrap all scenic plans for it when we had to move theaters last year) and so any viewer could set it where they wished, including inside a large imaginary can of green paint! I think all the "swimming" port des bras in the dance make more sense in an aqueous setting though.

To move back towards the opening discussion in this topic, I wanted to ask a related question. Ballet gets relatively short shrift in academia, at least in the United States. There was a period I considered returning to school for a PhD in dance and was gently and honestly dissuaded by a local dance writer who worked at the school I was considering. She said as someone more interested in ballet than modern dance, in history than literary theory and as a formalist I was going to be very unhappy at that specific school. Each university has a different profile of course, and she was quite right in that case, but I think it would have been a search to find a university where there would have been faculty that specialized in ballet rather than in modern dance.

What do people think of ballet's place in academia? Would you like to see more scholarly and academic criticism of ballet?

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 31 March 2002 - 11:17 PM

To respond to several points -

What's funny, dirac, is that my response to Perlis' letter was exactly the opposite. I thought her objections were reasonable and that Schiff's response was overheated and ad feminam (?). So go figure. My response to Schiff's comments on Rodeo quoted above were to remark to someone as I was choreographing a quartet for three women and a man, "I guess you didn't realize that everyone in that ballet is actually a man." I felt his assertions implied that if a gay man makes a role for a woman, it's sublimation.

Paul - I'm going to copy out some of your post on Billy to a new thread. I think we should talk about the ballet itself, as well as using it as an example of how to talk about a ballet. I also thought your point about a working artist generally rejecting psychological interpretations is pretty much on the mark (especially if the artist sees himself as a modernist)

Drew - your thoughts and explanations helped to show the other ways of looking at a blackbird! For me, it's interesting how much biographical information I take for granted when I look at a work. I consider myself familiar with Balanchine's biography, and sometimes with unpublished details (from interviews I've done) but I find that for me, even knowing the details of his life they still recede into the background. I know about all the wives and the muses, but I tend not to think about them. But could one actually watch his Don Quixote and ignore the Farrell connection? I don't think even I can be that single minded!

At the same time, I know from my own work that my personal life can be inextricably mixed with the creation of a ballet. If someone asked me if my relationship with X was mirrored in such in such a ballet, or if there was an implied homoeroticism in another ballet, I'd freely admit they were there if that was the case, but there are certainly times it was. For me, though, it doesn't necessarily illuminate the work beyond the insights one could get from a careful viewing, but perhaps it might confirm impressions from that viewing.

#12 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 March 2002 - 04:07 PM

This is your friendly Babelfish Board Host here :) . I think a colloquial translation of Estelle's comment in French would be "looking from the wrong end of the telescope."

Does that work?

Also, I wanted to thank everyone for their responses, I feel like there's so much to see in what you all have to say. I'm going to wait to comment further in the hopes that more people will chime in first.

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 25 March 2002 - 10:40 PM

A few days ago, when I was in Louisville, I got to see a performance of Billy the Kid (on tape) for the first time (I had seen the ballet in rehearsal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, but it was not a complete run)

I was very impressed by the solidity of the work, and there was something in it that very much reminded me of the time of its creation (the late 30's) and so I decided to look on the web to see if I could find more commentary on the ballet.

An article on Copland's music (including the score for Billy the Kid) by David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College. was published in 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly - view it at http://www.theatlant.../001schiff2.htm - this link is to part two of a two part article.

What I found so interesting about the article were the very different styles of interpreting a work of art. When I was in college studying English Literature, I had a teacher whose general approach to a literary work was to place it in a social and historical context - "this is what was happening in the world at the time this work was made." There are plenty of other ways to look at a work of art, but this one always appealed to me the most. When I look at The Four Temperaments or Agon, I find myself looking at the ballet and the performance itself, but I also find myself thinking as well about the world of 1946 or the New York of 1957 that engendered these works.

In Schiff's article, the section on Billy contained a passage similar to what I had been thinking about when I watched the film -

By the late 1930s Copland had found an American voice that was folklorist and Modernist combined -- in Billy the Kid and two ballets that followed it, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. An instant hit, Billy the Kid gave the politics of the Popular Front a musical popular front of borrowed cowboy tunes fitted out with modern harmonies and edgy, irregular rhythms.

In the libretto of Lincoln Kirstein, especially (which added a fictional incident of Billy's mother getting accidentally shot to propel Billy into his outlaw state) one could sense the politics of the Left of that time, a desire to understand and humanize those on the margins of society. Compare it to another time when Billy might have been explained as simply being "born bad."

After Schiff places the ballet in an historical context, he then interprets both Billy and Rodeo in a completely different way -

Although Billy dances a waltz with his nameless Mexican sweetheart, he seems preoccupied by homosexual feelings for the sheriff, Pat Garrett, who eventually kills him. Few listeners will notice this undercurrent when they hear the suite from the ballet at an orchestral concert. Copland omitted the romantic waltz episode from the suite, thereby emphasizing the macho side of the music -- a side that would resound in cowboy movies and Marlboro cigarette commercials to come.

[and of Rodeo]

If we view the sexually ambiguous figure of the tomboy as a woman, her capitulation seems politically incorrect, as feminist critics have noted. But think of the cowgirl as a closeted homosexual male, as Copland may have, and the story takes on a very different feeling. Indeed, with its stageful of faux cowboys, Rodeo has always had a camp undertone that actually fits well with the Chaplinesque quality De Mille gave to her own performances as the cowgirl. Once again subtext vanishes in the concert hall, where Rodeo seems as American as mock-apple pie.


Here, Schiff does something that often gives me pause; goes for a psychological interpretation of the artist's intent, particularly in the area of gender. My own problem with that sort of interpretation is it diminishes my enjoyment of a work. Setting the work in a historical context widens the horizon of a work for me; to think of Agon as happening at the dawn of space travel and the beginnings of the computer gives it associations which enlarge it in my mind. And in the opposite way, I find for me that often setting the work in a personal and psychological context can reduce the horizon of a work, and it gets smaller.

Schiff's article makes interesting reading because it exhibits several ways to look at and interpret a work. Which of them work for you? Predictably, that article drew fire from one of Copland's biographers and she and Schiff got into a heated exchange in the Letters to the Editor. She basically says he's reaching and he says she whitewashes his life. It shows how many different ways there are to look at a body of work. Copland's biographer seems to look primarily at the works themselves. Think of Balanchine or Robbins, constantly refusing any interpretation of their works. "It means what you see." It's that insistence that also makes me more comfortable with historical context - for me, it illuminates the work without "interpreting" it.

And on the other side of the issue in this instance, Schiff argues that without the personal context of Copland's life, we've missed half (or more) of the story.

So for those of you who look critically at ballets, how do you approach them? Do you prefer any of the methods above, or another method entirely? And why? I hope some Ballet Alerters with a background in academic criticism (Drew?) will chime in on the issue - I think they can illuminate the trends and reasons much better than me.

#14 Drew

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Posted 10 April 2002 - 02:22 PM

Since I don't keep up with the scholarly work that is being done on ballet, I feel a bit of a hypocrite saying this, but yes, I think I would like to see more in the way of serious 'academic' work on ballet. As with literature or the other arts, I don't think such work would necessarily, or need necessarily, appeal to a huge audience. But more concentrated, serious research on classical ballet has, or should have, a place as part of the full spectrum of response to dance as an art form. (For the fans, it's not an either/or -- reading Jacques Derrida does not preclude counting fouettes; this message board attests to that...)

Thinking about the academy in general, I think research into ballet could help create an intellectual context in which ballet was taken more seriously as an art form. Ballet often belongs in discussions where it is left out entirely (or treated very superficially) -- e.g. discussions of the history of modernism or, for that matter, eighteenth-century neo-classicism. We know much more about the painter David and the French Revolution than the choreographer Pierre Gardel and the French Revolution. This is not merely a case of dance's 'ephemerality' since David, too, worked on spectacles -- with Gardel at times -- that no longer exist. As things presently stand, the ballet 'specialists' are still just barely making the kind of case AS specialists that could enter into dialogue with other work in the humanities and social sciences. And ALL SIDES are poorer as a result. People knock Forsythe for being "pretentious" but at least he openly conceives his work in relation to some of the most important intellectual currents of his time.

One could hope, too, that the long term effect of ballet being better integrated into academic and philosophical 'culture' might even be a certain 'trickle down' effect into the quality of more popular writing on dance, and perhaps even some greater consistency of financial support for companies. These things are, after all, influenced by wider perceptions about what is important socially/culturally/historically.

But there are obviously more immediate reasons academic work on classical dancing, with all its potential pitfalls, should be supported. A great deal of ballet history has yet to be seriously studied at all -- let alone debated from different research perspectives -- and more speculative, interpretive work remains to be done as well. Perhaps not every audience member wants to read a monograph on the relation of 17th century baroque emblems, Walter Benjamin's theory of allegory, and the emergence of court ballet, but it would be absurdly anti-intellectual and (to me) rather depressing to believe that no space, actual or virtual, remains open to these more specialized inquiries, more difficult questions, more complex elaborations. And as someone who admires and loves ballet, I have no doubt that it would repay profoundly just those kinds of inquiries, questions, and elaborations -- that ballet, so to speak, has something to offer academic discourse, not just the other way around.

#15 Drew

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Posted 26 March 2002 - 12:51 PM

Gee...one reason I have not been posting much is that I'm rather exhausted these days plus not seeing any ballet -- but I'll give this a (tentative) try...

Obviously, an insight about a ballet can come from anywhere -- formal analysis, historical context, biography. As long as it maintains a relation to the singularity of the work, it has the potential to enliven understanding, perception etc. Actually, I often find the historical and social "context" approaches to be quite as deadeningly narrow or unimaginative as biographical or psychological ones! (Important works of art interupt and re-invent their 'context,' or even the very idea of context -- an effect for which contextual analysis does not always allow.)

However, that's a bit mealy-mouthed, so closer to how I really feel:

Psycho-analysis has a technical term, that I rather like, for a peculiarly knotty type of causal relation: overdetermined. It does not just mean that something has multiple determinations or causes, but that, it appears to have, from a common sense point of view, too many of them; any one causal explanation COULD account for it, yet more keep popping up. Obviously, when you're talking about something that's overdetermined, you're no longer talking about straightforward kinds of causality or 'explanation' and 'interpretation.' There's a kind of gap or mismatch between the object of which one is trying to give an account and the sheer multiplicity of accounts one can come up with. Artworks are always and, as a matter of course, overdetermined. So, any 'background' or 'explanation,' tends to seem reductive -- even when it's illuminating. (This does not mean anything goes...obviously, sometimes an interpreter just gets something wrong.)Arguably, one actually NEEDS to be reductive in order to clarify some aspect of the work.

For myself, I'm actually very interested in knots and effects of overdetermination, so I'm always rather fascinated at the moment when something can simultaneously be explained by reference to tradition, formal considerations, psychological needs, historical background etc: I would say Balanchine's ballerina roles are a good example -- his interest in Suzanne Farrell, as staged in Diamonds, seemingly inextricable from his interest in Petipa or for that matter a particular musical configuration. Where exactly does one interest begin and one end? I'm not saying there's no answer, just that teasing out the answer(s) might take one deeper into the choreography. Or,to put it a little differently, that what's interesting about Balanchine's art has something to do with the undecidability between a purely formal account of it and a highly personal or referential one...(By the by, this is NOT the same as saying, that the work 'sublimates' -- on the contrary, the problem is more along the lines that one can never be sure.)

Similarly, I think really great works reflect on themselves -- provide their own commentary in a way -- and a really shrewd critic can work, seemingly, 'within' the work to tease out that commentary. This is easier to show in literature!!! but a lot of ballets seem to allegorize their own creation. (Think Swanilda/Coppelia or, for that matter, Baryshnikov's uncanny mimicry of Tharp in Push Comes to Shove -- not a great work perhaps...)

Oh, also, in dance -- where I'm just an amateur, a fan -- I don't have a very well trained eye, so I always especially appreciate criticism that helps me to see better. I mean that quite literally. Of course, I feel similarly about other arts as well -- I always want criticism and interpretation to have a relation to the singularity of a work etc. But if I'm in an area where I have some more extended knowledge and experience...I tend to have rather more specific intellectual problems or debates in which I'm interested.


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