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Chicago Dancing Festival

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So, trying my best to look like Nate Archibald, I decamped to Chicago on Monday to enjoy the first two nights (of three) of the annual Chicago Dancing Festival. Here are my thoughts regarding Day 1 at the Harris Theater:

The Harris Theater, which is part of Millenium Park, has very steep seating but this makes for excellent sightlines. I was seated in Row Z but I had a great view of the stage.

The evening began with a defile of the dancers from the participating companies (not in this order): Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Joffrey Ballet, Limon Dance Company, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and Oregon Ballet Theatre. The theme for the evening was "20th Century Masters" and featured works by George Balanchine (two), Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Lar Lubovitch and Paul Taylor.

First Half

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company

Concerto Six Twenty-Two (1986)

Chicago Dancing Festival co-founder Lar Lubovitch went first with his signature work - Concerto Six Twenty-Two. This is a work which I like very much but, on the night, I found it somewhat ragged. I thought it suffered a bit from a lack of a unified company style -- half the dancers appeared to be leaning toward the ballet end of the spectrum while the other half appeared to be leaning toward the modern end of the spectrum. I saw the Limon Dance Company perform this exact same work in 2006 and, I must say, I preferred their account of it to the Lubovitch company's account due to the unified style of the Limon dancers. Still, this was a lot of fun and certainly got the capacity crowd excited for the remainder of the evening.

Limon Dance Company

The Moor's Pavane (1949)

The Harris Theater is probably not the ideal place to see this work if you're sitting toward the back as I was. At a certain remove, the gestural quality which is so important to The Moor's Pavane is lost and, consequently, the dance itself loses some of its power. There was a frenzied quality to the movements on Monday night which I had not encountered in my prior viewings of this work (in 2006 and 2007) and I couldn't help but wonder if this was an attempt to put this work "across" in a larger venue.

That being said, sitting toward the back revealed an aspect of The Moor's Pavane to me that I had not encountered in venues where I had sat closer to the stage -- namely, Jose Limon's marvelous capacity for spatial design. Truly, from where I was sitting, it did live up to its billing as a "living canvas". I wouldn't want to view this work in this way on a regular basis but, as a one-off, it was a revelation.

Two of the pavane's members were new to their roles (or at least new to me, the Limon specialist on this board) -- Jonathan Fredrickson as The Moor's Friend (Iago) and Kathryn Alter as The Friend's Wife (Emilia). Of the two, Alter made the more dynamic impression (even though not all of the gestural quality registered) and I would very much like to see her again in this role.

Suzanne Farrell Ballet

Tzigane (1975)

Oh dear -- I'm about to make enemies nine ways to Sunday with what I'm about to write but here goes: I hated this.

In fairness to the troupe, I don't understand why they were positioned the way they were during the first half. They should have started the first half and the Lubovitch company should have finished it. Having to follow crowd pleasers like Concerto Six Twenty-Two and The Moor's Pavane was not a blessing for them.

I had several significant problems with this work. The lead ballerina looked like she was wearing a hula skirt from where I was sitting, which was VERY jarring. More problematic for me (and for Tzigane) was the lead ballerina's complete lack of expressivity -- she just did not register from where I was sitting. Add to this the faux gypsy claptrap of the work itself and a certain raggedness on the part of the entire troupe and I was ready to head to the refreshment stand. Mercifully, it was the shortest work of the first half.

Sorry Farrell fans but this was, in my opinion, the worst performance of the evening.


Second Half

Martha Graham Dance Company

Cave Of the Heart (1946)

Graham's take on Medea didn't hold my interest as a dance drama for much the same reason The Moor's Pavane didn't entirely hold my interest this time around -- it lost something in translation from stage to seat. Certain acts of stage business were unintelligible from where I was sitting and made following the storyline something of a trial. BUT, Miki Orihara was so powerful and so expressive as Medea that she swept all such concerns before her and gave the performance of the night. This got the biggest hand of the evening, largely on the strength of Orihara's performance.

Oregon Ballet Theatre

Pas de deux from Rubies (1967)

Yuka Iino and Ronnie Underwood performed the pas from Rubies. Rubies is my least favorite part of Jewels (I'm an Emeralds man) but they performed this cleanly and with verve. However, they were at a decided disadvantage for two reasons. First, coming hard on the heels of Cave Of the Heart was a thankless task and proved to be. Also, on a night when the other companies brought their major calling cards, a mere extract from a larger work ended up looking slight in comparison.

Nevertheless, I admired these two dancers for going out there under unfavorable conditions and performing with great professionalism and conviction -- it couldn't have been easy.

Joffrey Ballet

Cloven Kingdom (1976)

The best part of Paul Taylor's meditation on the struggle between base and noble instincts in human beings occurred roughly at mid-point in the dance, when the four Joffrey guys lit up the stage. This was just spectacular.

Unfortunately, I thought the dance sort of peaked at that point. Ultimately, Taylor's premise (which isn't terribly original in any event) wore out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through the dance. Still, it was worth sitting through the entire piece for the sake of seeing the four guys. (Oh, and nice cartwheels ladies!)

There you have it. In the spirit of the Olympics, here are my medals:

Gold: Miki Orihara, the Joffrey guys

Silver: Kathryn Alter

Bronze: Yuka Iino and Ronnie Underwood

I got back to the Palmer House Hilton around 10:30 and I could swear I saw the Elusive Muse herself in the lobby; looking suitably elusive and remote . . .

Coming soon: A review of Day 2, in which the ghosts of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey debate which one of them "Miss Ruth" liked best and Jared Matthews strikes a pose!

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Although I posted in the Heads Up! forum that there would be 15 dance companies involved in this year's Chicago Dancing Festival, the Monday-evening indoor performance was a pretty reasonable program with six companies performing six ballets or excerpts thereof:

Festival organizer Lar Lubovich's own dancers led off with a spirited performance of his Concerto Six Twenty-Two, to the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, favorite music of mine; but in spite of our being directed by that title to listen closely, my normal method anyway, it seemed to me that Lubovich and Mozart went pretty much their own more or less parallel but distant ways, and that the dance could conceivably have been made to another piece with similar organization (including, here and there, the same rhythms). There were momentary exceptions when they seemed to make contact, as when Mozart, in the first movement allegro, ends an arcing phrase on a dubious note and one of the women throws her head back open-mouthed, with the back of her wrist to her forehead in an "Oh, God!" moment. But Lubovich's way is not a familiar one to me, so although I may have missed a lot, I don't think so, and this all-to-common central chasm cost the dance considerable effect, although it still played a role as an upbeat opener.

The Moor's Pavane was quite another matter, looking as though Limon had his scenario pretty much in mind, assembled his musical suite, and fitted his action adroitly to the changing moods of his accompaniment. (The program credits the actual arrangement of Purcell's music to Simon Sadoff.) Masterly construction goes a long way to account for the durability of this dance, and the masterly performance it got from the four selfless and committed dancers gave it more timelessness. They were Francisco Ruvalcaba as The Moor, Jonathan Fredrickson as His Friend, Kathryn Alter as His Friend's Wife, and Roxane D'Orleans Juste as The Moor's Wife. Fredrickson's sinuous quality helped quietly to make his role the more sinister. This was all pretty impressive to me.

Balanchine's Tzigane, with its "nightclub overtones" (Kirstein, quoted by Farrell) served nicely to lift the mood after the Moor's tragic descent into madness. It would have served even better except that it was danced on a dimmer stage than the Lubovitch or most of the Limon, the first number of which was also a little dim, as though somebody at the controls didn't like that part, and Natalia Magnicaballi, whom I had hoped to see in the lead, looked a little tense or something until near the the end of the long solo with which the little ballet begins. Then she seemed to come more to herself, and I saw again the Magnicaballi who had performed it with wonderful life, passion, even heat sometimes, at Jacob's Pillow a couple of years ago (and who had danced a beautiful Terpsichore in Gettysburg a few weeks ago). Her partner of those Tzigane performances, Momchil Mladenov, looked a little overactive alongside her; and the small corps danced large and shapely as we usually see with this troupe. (Farrell wrote about the loneliness of this solo, and flying in the day before may not allow the same preparation for it as settling in for a week did.)

Most of the dances got corny introductions over the public-address system, but right after intermission, Janet Eilber, the artistic director of The Martha Graham Dance Company, using a microphone onstage in front of us, supplied a concise synopsis for Cave of the Heart which we really needed, as the few vague remarks in the program didn't enable one to "read" this dance. Eilber's casting of diminutive Miki Orihara in the big role of Medea was also right on target; Orihara's effect, the greatest of the four dancers, was out of all proportion to her physical stature. But the whole cast seemed so conscientious and lightweight compared to the historical films I wondered whether these might be dancers who had initially trained for ballet, an approach antithetical, if not heretical, to Graham's own, as I understand it.

A similar problem would partly vitiate Paul Taylor's Cloven Kingdom, performed by the Joffrey Ballet in Linda Kent's staging. In the absence of Taylor's dancers, it's the next best way to present this mostly cheerful ensemble dance, a pretty good conclusion for a well-constructed evening, but with some of its substance lacking -- the humor attenuated beneath visibility, for instance -- it was Taylor "lite", and it became too long. (But I wouldn't want a straight-faced performance to be replaced by a hammy one.)

But in between, Yuka Iino and Ronnie Underwood, from Oregon Ballet Theatre, presented the central pas de deux from Balanchine's "Rubies". Not the knowing couple the original pair were, these performers brought to it just the right air of wit, and challenge to each other, along with adequate energy, scale and ease. It was well-lit, too, and for me one of the high points of the evening. "Original staging by Colleen Neary" said the program, and so here was a performance of a pas de deux that brought credit to three people.

This and the Farrell Ballet's renditions of Balanchine, alongside these modern-dance works, made it all the clearer to me how invisible -- or maybe the word is transparent -- Balanchine's choreography can be in good performance: The dancers look like they're doing what they're doing because of what they hear, as though no "choreography" were involved, even more in the "Rubies" pas de deux than in Tzigane. To me, this is what's behind the slogan sometimes recited in connection with Balanchine's works -- "See the music, hear the dance" -- and it's this natural-seeming integration that's at least part of what makes his art superior.

("Hear the Music, See the Dance" is the slogan of the Harris Theatre, and although there were some mild problems with seeing the dance as I've noted, we couldn't help but hear the music, all recorded and played too loud as it was over the theatre's excellent sound system. Loud music makes my attention draw back, as though to protect me from the onslaught, so that it seems to make the dance that much harder to see, too, but the right earplugs help. For the benefit of others who may want help coping with this problem, I use a pair of Aearo E-A-R Grande earplugs, which weaken the sound some without muffling it as most common earplugs do. Is that a plug for some plugs? Oh, dear!)

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So, on to Day 2 of the Chicago Dancing Festival!

Sighted in the lobby of the Hilton: Limon Dance Company artistic director Carla Maxwell and Limon senior dancer Roxane D'Orleans Juste in the morning and American Ballet Theatre dancer Jared Matthews twice in the afternoon (cute -- both times! :thumbsup: )

The second event of the festival was a lecture/demonstration at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Tuesday evening. Carla Maxwell presented for the Limon company and artistic director Janet Eilber of the Martha Graham Dance Company presented for the Graham troupe. I was hoping that the spirits of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey (Jose Limon's mentor and the first artistic director of his company) would join us for a hair-pulling debate over who "Miss Ruth" loved best but, alas, they failed to show and the evening was otherwise very convivial.

Eilber and Maxwell took turns speaking, showing films and presenting excerpts from repertory works to demonstrate the differences between Graham Technique and Humphrey-Limon Technique. In essence, Graham Technique centers (hohoho) around the pelvis and the idea of "contraction and release". Humphrey-Limon Technique falls (hohoho) around the idea of "fall and recovery" and how the impetus of the human breath can have startling implications for movement.

Roxane D'Orleans Juste performed two separate "etudes" based on Humphrey and Limon choreography. The first incorporated movement themes from Limon's Psalm, A Choreographic Offering and La Malinche. The second utilized themes from Humphrey's Passcaglia and Limon's Missa Brevis and Chaconne. What struck me about these two etudes (apart from how beautiful so much of the movement was) was the sense they left of almost limitless possibility within the technique. Depending on how far a dancer pushes the concept of yielding to gravity and recovering from it, the dancer can create a different effect to the same set of steps each time.

Jennifer Depalo from the Graham company performed several extracts from repertory -- Seraphic Dialogue, Night Journey and Embattled Garden. The Seraphic Dialogue excerpt hit home the hardest for me. What it showed me was that the Graham contraction can be used, not only as a tool for physical movement, but also as a way to create dramatic content on stage.

Of the two techniques, I must admit I prefer Humphrey-Limon Technique to Graham Technique. Humphrey-Limon is separate and apart from ballet technique and, yet, like the classical ballet, it has a deep love of presenting beauty. Graham, in contrast, seems to delight in showing strain. Graham Technique is undeniably powerful and undeniably dramatic but I don't find it pleasing to the eye the way I find Humphrey-Limon and ballet techniques.

The evening concluded with a question & answer session. Here are some of the highlights:

1) The moderator asked Eilber and Maxwell about the creative processes Graham and Limon used in the studio. Eilber said that Graham had to change her creative process during the late-1960s from choreographing on her body to choreographing on her dancers' bodies. Maxwell said that Limon started with an idea and he would often live with the idea for a very long time. (She gave The Moor's Pavane as an example -- Limon spent the better part of a year working on it.)

2) There was an odd question about Isadora Duncan.

3) Eilber and Maxwell both talked about how much of the Graham and Limon repertories are still "performable". Eilber said that Graham choreographed 180+ dances during her lifetime but that only about 50 of the dances survive (and, of those 50, only about 12-15 are constant presences in the performing repertory.) Maxwell didn't give numbers (although I've heard a range of anywhere from 75 to 100 Limon works created and about 25 surviving) but she did say that much of Limon's repertory was never filmed or notated and, therefore, is lost. (Also, Limon started choreographing late and died relatively young, so his output was smaller tham most of his contemporaries.) Also, Eilber and Maxwell both said that Graham and Limon hated to do revivals!

4) There was an interesting discussion about the role of music in each choreographer's repertory. Carla Maxwell repeated what I've heard her say before -- that Limon didn't believe you could be a great dancer if you weren't highly musical. Eilber gave a fascinating response -- that Graham considered music to be an "opposition" force in her work and/or a tool for the dancer (like a prop?) I didn't entirely understand what Eilber meant by this and, unfortunately, the moderator didn't follow up on this point.

Well, that's my report from the festival. I didn't stay for tonight's performance in Millenium Park so someone else will have to report back from that. I didn't find a rich billionaire industrialist at the Hilton (a la Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel) but I had a blast at the two events I attended! :)

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I'm going to ask a dumb question.

If Graham & Humphrey are accepted techniques that we have generations of trained dancers in... why aren't other choreographers working in the techniques? Or are they, in the same sense that Balanchine worked in Taglioni's technique, Cunningham works in Grahams's?

Do you have a technique if the shadow of the originator is so great that no one else can create in it?

Or am I ignoring a huge number of perfectly valid Graham & Humphrey choreographers?

I wouldn't ask this if I didn't think Graham & Humphrey techniques to be the beautiful articulations that they are.

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I don't know how I missed this thread when I posted, but I wrote in complete ignorance of miliosr's first post, and (once again, as often here) I think it's interesting how we compare -- in our very different ways, we nevertheless responded similarly as well as differently. I think many of the same qualities registered with both of us, although we gave them different weights as different people will. Seeing the program through someone else's eyes is like seeing it again! Thanks, miliosr, for putting your account that well.

(I was very fortunate to be seated in the middle of row P, FWIW; I think it helped. Sorry for you, miliosr, I've been in row Z, and it's as far back as I'll go.)

Edited by Jack Reed
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A couple of thoughts on your post Amy.

I do think choreographers continue to utilize both techniques -- they just don't make sole use of these techniques. As Janet Eilber noted on Tuesday night, Limon's teachings are very evident in Lar Lubovitch's Concerto Six Twenty-Two. But there are other elements to this work as well. What I think is happening now is that there has been so much cross-pollination of techniques and movement ideas within the modern idiom and across idioms (ballet and modern) that the ideas of Graham, Humphrey and Limon have almost become subsumed into the larger "contemporary" technique.

Carla Maxwell made an interesting point on Tuesday. During their lifetimes, Humphrey and Limon resisted all attempts to codify the technique because they wanted it to evolve -- they didn't want to block off future avenues of exploration or cross-pollination by creating set positions. This doesn't mean that Limon technique doesn't have core tenets -- it does -- but that the technique remains a flexible tool which can be used by itself or in tandem with another discipline.

As for your larger point regarding the absence of major choreographers working in the Graham and Limon tradition, well . . . I don't think a technique can confer creative greatness. Just look at Balanchine and his take on ballet technique -- the followers who knew him and are (presumably) influenced by his ideas certainly haven't produced a collective body of work that looks likely to long survive their deaths.

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It just seems a little sad to me, that training a dancer exquisite in one of those techniques to have no new work created on him/her... I'm not sure that the contemporary evolved mix of techniques is the same as someone specially trained in one of them... (yes, a great dancer is a great dancer, but... ) With all the techniques mixed, and blurred, some of the imagery becomes blurred too.

After posting I found myself thinking that in a way Limon was a choreographer working in Humphrey technique (and expanding on it) more than say Cunningham could be said to be expanding on Graham technique.

After a while, I'm afraid it won't be possible to see a valid performance of a Graham ballet... and the world will have lost a treasure.

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As a Balanchine nut, I think I can empathise with that last point, Amy. Even without an acute eye for technique, I find I respond to "loss" and "erosion" as well as to "restoration". It's fascinating to compare notes with those who have this eye, and have them sharpen my perceptions. (That's one reason I'm here.)

To your point, I can scarcely bear to watch NYCB anymore, for example, Mr. B's way having nearly disappeared, as far as I can see. Many treasures are being lost. How what's being performed is part of what's being performed.* But here in Chicago, it's so uncommmon to see even moderately good Balanchine, not to mention the other historic choreographers who one could think from what one saw were the main thrust of the program, whether, nodding to miliosr's observations, (atypically) inexpressive or rudely excerpted, that I found value in Monday night's show that we got as much as we got.

(There are other Balanchine pas de deux that might better have been shown, where we don't need the set-up of the preceeding ensembles.)

Several years ago, I found someone at one of Ballet Chicago Studio Company's shows with no kid in the cast. "It's so hard to see Balanchine in Chicago," she said. Sadly, she spoke for many of us in Chicago.

*This sentence makes my main point, but I omitted it originally. Maybe I won't post if I can't give proper attention.

Edited by Jack Reed
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Jack -- I had originally posted in the Modern forum and then you posted in the Galas forum. That's how we missed each other at first. But a kindly moderator moved my post to your thread, which is a better home for it.

You had mentioned that you found the opening section of The Moor's Pavane somewhat dimly lit. That's by design -- those extraordinary costumes are supposed to illuminate the gloom. I enjoyed The Moor's Pavane but it wasn't the best Pavane I've ever seen. As I wrote previously, some of the subtleties were lost from where I was sitting. Interesting that you enjoyed Jonathan Fredrickson's performance so much. I think if I had been sitting closer to the stage, then I would have seen more of what you enjoyed. As it was, of the four participants in the pavane, I thought Kathryn Alter projected just the right amount of intensity for the venue. Fredrickson was almost too subtle from where I was sitting and Francisco Ruvalcaba and Roxane D'Orleans Juste perhaps drifted a shade too close to Nureyev & Friends territory.

In fairness to the Farrell troupe, I don't understand why they were positioned the way they were in the first half. It was very self-effacing of Lar Lubovitch to go first but Concerto Six Twenty-Two is a closer -- not an opener. I also think that, like The Moor's Pavane, Cave of the Heart and even the Rubies pas, I might have enjoyed Tzigane a little more if I had been up close and could see some of the subtleties a little better. But, as you noted, the performance was odd on the night -- with the ballerina underpowered and the cavalier overpowered and the corps adding a third element seemingly disconnected from the first two.

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Amy -- The Harris Theater is very steep.

In regard to your concerns about preserving lineages, I don't disagree with you that the current postmodernist stripmining of techniques and styles in the international contemporary dance scene is problematic. When Martha Hill created the Juilliard dance division, people like Erick Hawkins warned that having students study with Graham and Limon and Anna Sokolow and Antony Tudor would inevitably blur what was unique about the individual techniques/styles. To some extent, this has occurred (by design in the case of Humphrey and Limon as they didn't want the technique to remain static.)

Did anyone go to the outdoor performance on Wednesday night?

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Not exactly everyone, Amy, but as miliosr says, the five-year-old Harris Theatre is pretty steeply raked up, maybe more than is necessary for good sightlines, though that might have been done for acoustical reasons, and especially when in the front of the balcony or to a lesser extent the back of the orchestra I've felt they're dancing for those people below me, almost like when I'm at the side in any theatre, it feels like they're dancing for those people over there and not for me. I feel left out, and so, having got spoiled by having the emanations hit me right between the eyes, I've become very picky about where I sit.

Yeah, perceptions are much influenced by seat location. Usually. (I went to one of Merce's gymnasium "events" years ago, which was presented "in the round" and much of the time I still felt I was in the wrong spot, even though that's not supposed to happen, but I could still follow sequences in the fragments being presented and enjoy them.) Looking down from "on high" can make the experience more than a little abstract.

Thanks, miliosr, for the comment on the beginning of Pavane. I think now I have seen it when more skillful lighting than we got last Monday made the effect you describe work impressively; partly as though we were looking into the past? And then as the lights came up onstage, we were there in the time of the story. Or am I putting more into it than is there?

BTW, congratulations on sighting Her Elusiveness. I hung around the stage door after the program, but I had no luck at all. The stated idea of the Festival was to make Chicago a destination city for dance, and it looks like it worked for you, and you got the grand tour, except for the outdoor part. As for that, I've been to a couple of outdoor summer-evening events in Grant Park, and I found the distractions and discomforts of traffic noise and heat and humidity too great for much enjoyment.

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If you still have your program handy, I wonder who designed the lighting for Pavane? (or who apparently interpreted it, if it seems like a name that wasn't likely present at the tech rehearsal?) I don't know if the LDs I knew in Chicago in the mid '90s are still active, but I'm curious to see if I recognize the name.

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Amy, the program credits the lighting design to Steve Woods on the pages giving casting, synopses, and so on. Later in the book, there's a list of staff of the Chicago Dancing Festival, where Todd Clark is listed as Technical Director. Recognise anybody?

(Among the credits for the other dances are famous names who were not all likely present: Jean Rosenthal for Cave of the Heart, Ronald Bates for Rubies, and Jennifer Tipton for Cloven Kingdom.)

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I've always assumed that the opening of The Moor's Pavane, with its counterpoint of dimmed lighting and El Greco-like costumes (both in color and design) gleaming from the gloom, was a deliberate attempt on Limon's part to transport the viewer immediately to a different time and place. Since he used no set, the lighting effect at the beginning accomplished what a set normally does -- setting the mood. (I happen to think that an actual set would ruin The Moor's Pavane.)

As for the Elusive Muse, I locked eyes with her for a few seconds and it was like looking into the face of a sphinx -- mysterious and, ultimately, unknowable.

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