Co-authoring Meaning at WDDF-SF | By Julie Potter

Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in "People Like You"

Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in “People Like You”

Within ODC Theater’s 2013 season based on storytelling, the 12 performances in two days composing the Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF served as a reminder that the most powerful stories are the ones we tell ourselves; aligning with many in the field of psychology who assert that the ability to construct and sustain narrative is a fundamental act for conscious beings.  Experiencing so many distinct artists from California and New York in less than 48 hours required one’s own construction of story in collaboration with the artists.  The many interpretations which emerged from WDDF-SF echo writer Marilyn Robinson’s words from her essay “On Beauty” for Tin House, discussing humans as creatures of narrative:

“We know that humankind has sat around its fires from time immemorial and told its tales and told them again, elaborating and refining, and we know that certain of these tales have become myth, epic, fable, Holy Writ. Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things…”

As in life, this human tendency to make sense of things is precisely that which engaged audience members responding to the dance works in the festival.  Spending time with dance helps us practice storytelling in collaboration with the artists sharing their work, as we fill in the gaps and link the images from the stage, in an effort to make sense of things.

Quenching our thirst for narrative, casebolt and smith discussed the potential meanings of their gestures in O(h), using dance as demonstration with an ongoing verbal conversation, which, at times, evolved into song. “People like our work because we usually tell you what the dance means in effect satisfying your need to know you’re right.” casebolt and smith stated in unison. While it can be a relief to have the artist tell you what a certain gesture intends, and the artists did show us how the same movement can have different meanings, this easy and direct delivery squashed my curiosity, as they painted dance to be solely representational, suggesting that every movement possesses a meaning that can be translated in words.

Joel Smith and Liz Casebolt in "O(h)"

Joel Smith and Liz Casebolt in “O(h)”

Others who I spoke with as a performance docent enjoyed the sort of lecture demonstration style since it gave them access into the mind of the artists and their process. Rapidly batting dialogue back and forth, the artists’ relationship to each other is deeply attuned. For the finale, the pair improvise to develop a song and dance together. The playful, live creation included humorous moments as one would direct the other how to mime an exaggerated heartbeat guiding clasped hands to touch and extend from the chest, as if we were watching a rehearsal. While entertaining and informative, the choice of casebolt and smith to dwell on the question of what a dance means flattened what the dance could do.

Also addressing the desire to make sense of things, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in People Like You, frame their work through narration, which in this case, has a more dimensional and invitational effect. Following an initial sequence during which Seiters and Lincoln observe themselves holding round illuminated mirrors, they stand at a microphone reminding us that “We tell ourselves stories.” They ask after our expectations and even request that when they get to the end of the dance, we “pretend it all works.” From there the duet evolves into a compelling yet disorienting epic.

Film segments show the faces of the artists from a perspective similar to that of the mirrors held as the artists closely study their faces, pondering and perhaps checking for the changes of time in their skin. Sound plays a major role in this work and the combination of the ticking metronome downstage, with film images of a pregnant Seiters and Lincoln wearing a cast of a pregnant abdomen live, points to the passage of time allowing the past and present to be in conversation. When the two pitch forward from the waist, their arms swing, keeping the pace like the metronome, and when they partner, both careful and responsive, they explore fixed points and freedom of the limbs, directing each other and alternating in control.

When the two freeze, facing each other center stage, a brightly-dressed ensemble, burst out to the sounds of Balkan brass for a cinematic and surreal jamboree. They swiftly place white squares on the floor creating a chessboard pattern around the frozen duo and pair off for a frontal-facing dance. Disappearing as fast they emerged, the ensemble inserts a powerfully visual interruption. A sequence of Seiters and Lincoln handling toy zebras follows, like Noah’s Ark animals boarding two-by-two, shadows looming large on the curtain behind.

Later, again using sound, Seiters collapses onto a table and manipulates a microphone skimming it along the surface with Lincoln underneath. We have all heard someone walking on a floor above, sensing the presence of a person without seeing them. The cryptic sound of Seiters’s movement above the table evokes the womb experience of a yet-to-be-born baby, as Lincoln could sense but not see. The work also concludes with sound, a visceral pounding by the ensemble from around the house and then darkness, abruptly and completely.

During the Dance and Discourse workshop Saturday, June 1 at the ODC Dance Commons just prior to the final program of Scott Wells & Dancers, Brian Brooks and ODC Dance, festival goers wrestled with their own construction of narratives based on the work of festival artists such as Leslie Seiters and Rachael Lincoln, Kate Weare and Company, Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project and casebolt and smith. Co-authoring meaning with the festival artists and fellow audience members, participants discussed associations with the maternal clock and also drew parallels of how the arm swinging movement of Seiters and Lincoln, closely matched the repeated move of Weare’s cast during The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us. Weare’s dancers, however, execute the same movement with a coiled and bound energy, present in both of the company’s works on the program.

Of Weare’s Drop Down, a ferocious duet by Leslie Kraus and Luke Murphy, workshop participants noted an increased awareness of the footwork with the dancers performing tango-like steps and sequences while lying down, giving the audience a sort of view from below. It was the film images and mirror view from People Like You, that elicited the observation in Drop Down, a result of the festival structure, keeping memories concentrated and close to the following performance.

Brian Brooks in "I'm Going to Explode"

Brian Brooks in “I’m Going to Explode”

Drop Down makes a martial art of tango. When separate, the dancers seem to be shadow boxing as much as dancing. When together, their firm exchanges convey tensions: the dance in combat, as well as the fight in an embrace.   With a similar attack and precision to Weare’s artists, Brian Brooks’s San Francisco debut in I’m Going to Explode, to the LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge, also exhibited affinities to Nicole Klaymoon’s hip hop-trained dancers in his play with isolation, speed and slow motion. After removing the jacket and shoes of his business suit, Brooks extends his limbs distally. Brooks uses his torso as axis around which he coils and releases. His mathematical progressions of arm extensions reverberate into groovy retrogrades of his actions and sometimes outbursts of the running man. Both Brooks and Weare’s dancers, based in New York, exhibit a sculpted specificity and high intensity distinct from the other works in the festival.

Also weaving language into performance, Klaymoon’s House of Matter posits “Maybe home is an action, not a place.” The poetry and song about women, violence and love, combined with hip hop dance features the individuality of Embodiment Project artists, who create a cipher, taking turns in the spotlight. Singing from upstage, the velvety voices of the musicians braid vitality and triumph with the challenges addressed in the poetry. “I’m a walking historian with amnesia,” Klaymoon recites as she tiptoes and pop-locks among four men dressed in white, peacefully lying prone, hands folded in prayer. Where Brooks brings fluidity to his hip hop infused phrases, Klaymoon’s artists lock into postures and reverberate, alternating speed with suspension as if moving through a viscous serum. The movement also speaks to that of Seiters and Lincoln in the play of fixed points and freedom of isolated body parts.

While House of Matter relates to a metaphorical place, ODC Theater Artist-in-Residence Scott Wells’s Parkour Deux addresses relationships to a physical environment. Cityscapes suggested by large moveable mats and the brick walls of the theater compose the set. The artists seem to stand atop buildings and dart across the landscape, diving off ledges and catching each other with exacting timing. The manipulation of mats suggesting unstable ground seems appropriate for a city like San Francisco built along a fault line. Within a festival featuring many duets, the cast of Parkour Deux extends partnering to include the mats and walls, a presence with environment. Finally, when the ensemble breaks the risky athleticism to enact a ballet class barre exercise, the juxtaposition of dance’s indoor kids with the urban warriors of parkour make the latter group appear immensely more powerful and free.  While, ironically both Parkour and ballet are French inventions, Wells brings the two together with a light touch.

ODC Dance in KT Nelson’s Cut Out Guy, captures the thrill of men diving and catching one another, with the athleticism of Scott Wells’ artists, and an additional layer of deep emotionality evoked by Ben Frost’s score. As the all male cast nimbly support and carry each other, deft lunges and slides stir a youthful energy among the dancers. Again we see duets within the ensemble, both tender and firm in their partnering. Apparent within the festival context, similarities emerged between the horizontal floorwork of Drop Down, based on tango and the floorbound sections of Cut Out Guy inspired by wrestling. Nelson’s work has a hustle to it, punctuated by soaring moments during which men are lifted and floating, like humans in the sky of a Marc Chagall painting.

With storytelling, we think we believe what we see, but really, we see what we believe. The WDDF-SF offered opportunities to co-author our own stories with the artists shaped by our values and experiences with which we fill the gaps. Every performance speaks to the last work seen, and with the festival melting pot of artists, the stories layer and collide for a rich microcosm of contemporary performance today.

Walking Distance Dance Festival: An Interview With ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke | By Julie Potter

In anticipation of the WDDF-SF May 31 and June 1, I spoke with Christy Bolingbroke to discuss the dance on the program, emergent themes and process. Here’s our conversation from May 21:

Julie Potter: It’s the second year of the WDDF. Can you share your vision going into this year?

Christy Bolingbroke: Well the first year was auspicious because it was right around when the national field was in San Francisco for the Dance/USA conference, so there was a tremendous opportunity to highlight our local artists and it was also the ten year anniversary of the resident artist program at ODC and of SCUBA our national touring consortium. Therefore it was an alignment of planets for us to highlight several of our resident artists in our sized space, and to not just make it a local showcase, but to also provide context against some of our visiting artists from Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Seattle and we even had guest artist from Singapore last year.

This year was somewhat of a blank slate. We had the structure set up but didn’t need to be as broad. Because we did 16 performances over three days, we learned a lot about the format. This year we decided to do 12 performances over two days, really providing the opportunity to go deeper with what constitutes contemporary dance today.

I was really interested in artists who struck me because they have a clear and compelling voice sharing a specific point of view or inviting the audience in a way to also place themselves in the work, whether that’s empathizing with one of the individuals who is speaking or to really see the emotion and passion in a particular partnering sequence. Part of the 2013 curation was the idea of storytelling and all of these artists do tell stories – some solely through dance, some in nonlinear narratives, some incorporating spoken word or song and movement – and that’s what they all have in common.

JP: How do you think seeing the work in a festival structure influences the experience?

CB: I am one of those people who when you go out to brunch or dinner I want to know what everyone else is ordering because I don’t want to commit to just one entrée. I think there’s something similar in the festival. You don’t have to say “I’m just going to see hip-hop dance theater” but that you can see something else that complements it as well. Specifically the programs are built in short installments, 30-minute performances so you’re not committing to an entire evening with a single artist. The hope is that you’ll see one artist who pulled you in while getting exposed to another.

Having the three programs affords us the opportunity to do twelve performances. It’s feasible for the audience member, if they really want, to do a deep dive like going to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass or Coachella music festival that you can go in, be part of your experience and that’s your weekend. I would love WDDF-SF to be that for dance lovers and future dance lovers,  that they know they can go and invest themselves year after year.

JP: You mentioned storytelling as a theme for this year’s ODC Theater season. What other threads do you see when you take all the WDDF artists together?

CB: It’s not like the works are all fairy tales or straightforward stories with a moral lesson.  It’s more like a ‘choose your own adventure.’ Your path really depends on what you bring into that experience – your “baggage” or your predisposed expectations. If you come in during a particular moment in time when you’re very aware of your identity or sense of self and you see People Like You with Rachael [Lincoln] and Leslie [Seiters]… they’re definitely asking the questions – How do you look in other people’s eyes?  How are you in relation to someone else? – raising that kind of awareness through the process of performance.  The experience can certainly inform and speak to the thread of identity in the same way that Nicole Klaymoon in House of Matter talks of the figurative house we create for ourselves; to live in the space we create for ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically.

Compare that with casebolt and smith who talk right to the audience and are very matter of fact about who they are as a duet company. There are no bones about their identity – its challenges, its stereotypes – and I appreciate the freshness and honesty behind that. Each artist is tackling identity in a different way but if you came in with these questions of self and that’s part of your ongoing practice, that’s going to influence your experience with these works.

JP: How do you think about your audience when you’re selecting artists? What responsibilities do you feel to them? What is your desired outcome for their experience at the festival?

CB: I am conscious that I should be a good hostess. That can include everything from the format of the festival – not putting anyone in an uncomfortable situation where they’re going to be in a place two hours without an intermission, to how they can find their way in between the spaces.

Then there’s the selection of the artists, particularly how we format the programs. We have three visiting artists: Brian Brooks from New York, Kate Weare from New York and casebolt and smith from Los Angeles. I tried to spread them out among the programs so there’s exposure in each one and there’s a local artist on each program to anchor it.

JP: With five of the seven artists based in California, I was hoping you could share what you think is distinct about Left Coast voices. You’ve lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, the cities in which the WDDF artists are working. Do you have any instinct about ethos based on geography and where the artists are speaking from?

I don’t see it as, “Oh they’re only making this kind of work in the Pacific Northwest and this other kind of work in New York.” Artists as a whole tackle a lot of the same universal topics. Their approach and process and editing is what’s very different. For example in San Francisco, Scott [Wells] has been here for 20 years. He very much embraces investigation, finding how things will flow, how to work with gravity and against it, and build off of that. There is an embrace of contact improvisation, but it’s very much structured and he is very aware and interested in “How is the audience going to watch this? How is that going to be set up?”

If the Bay is about investigation and sometimes the process is the product, I think southern California is more interested in product. Certainly that ethos speaks to the more commercial film and television industry. Although casebolt and smith are not by any means commercial, they put on a good show and they’re very entertaining. They’ve thought it through and in many ways choose to use the direct approach of entertainment to demystify what it is to be in concert dance – how they generate movement and keep it fresh for themselves.

I wouldn’t say New York has a more cultural audience or atmosphere, but there are that many more institutions and there’s a larger population there, so by extension there’s a greater percentage of people seeing work out there. It’s an interesting combination of the entertainment or cultural offerings and consumption that happens. In some ways, when artists like Brian [Brooks] and Kate [Weare] do the investigation, it’s usually quicker and they’re much more succinct and rigorous about they’re editing. They go in and it’s very tight. Brian’s solo has this frenzied energy that is so tightly controlled, and quintessentially representative of New York City.

Then Kate [Weare], who’s originally from the Bay Area, was greatly influenced by seeing the works of Brenda [Way] and KT [Nelson] and Sara Shelton Mann when she was growing up. You can find that as a thread in her partner work and her approach, although she is still very much controlling it in a way aligned with East Coast aesthetics. She really gets in there and says, “I want it this way, this high… let’s fit that together…” She’s really judicious in terms of how she crafts the movement on the dancers.

That’s the other thing about the West Coast, particularly with groups like ODC Dance, Scott Wells and Dancers and Nicole Klaymoon. With their work the choreographers give a prompt to their dancers: What does that look like? How does that organize? Then they’ll edit, shape it and allow the work to reveal itself. You hear sculptors talk about the clay revealing something. I think the Bay Area tends to operate more from that perspective. There’s a great sense of  empowerment with the dancers and performers in terms of how much they’re bringing to the process. It’s not exclusive to the West Coast, but definitely something that seems prevalent among the generation of makers in the Bay Area right now.

Program Notes: Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF | By Julie Potter

ODC Dance performs Cut-Out Guy

ODC Dance performs Cut-Out Guy

The festival context for performance serves as a pressure cooker containing the flavors of several artists concentrated in time and space to offer intersections, associations and juxtapositions, which would otherwise be diffused if the works were to be experienced separately. Therefore, WDDF-SF mixes a stew of individual dances that altogether result in a certain flavor, specifically one of reclamation as it relates to the contemporary consciousness.

WDDF is largely Western, and appropriately so, occurring at the biggest dance campus on the West Coast, ODC. Five of the seven works are created and performed by California-based companies, making WDDF a distinctly investigative Left Coast voice of dance. In addition to the California-based groups in the festival, New York-based Kate Weare possesses Oakland roots and collaborated in 2013 with Brenda Way and KT Nelson on ODC Dance’s Triangulating Euclid. Through this collaboration and presence in WDDF Weare returns to a dance community, which shaped her development as an artist.

Scott Wells and Dancers

Scott Wells and Dancers

Another return to environment emerges in Scott Wells’ Parkour Deux. The work implements elements of parkour, a highly physical and acrobatic practice usually performed in urban landscapes as a means to reclaim what it means to be a human being. Parkour “Teaches us to touch the world and interact with it, instead of being sheltered by it” (Parkour North America).   How relevant to experience a physical reclamation of urban space through parkour in performance at a time when the Occupy movement and urban playground live games (such as those in San Francisco’s week-long Come Out and Play festival) call upon citizens to reclaim the “third place” – that space which exists between home and work; the public sphere and civic realm, usually diminished to commuting, shopping and having a coffee.

In addition to reclaiming environment, emphasis on human connection urgently rises from the heart of this festival, demonstrated by the many duets in WDDF. The relationships of live bodies, including casebolt and smith, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiter and the partnering sequences of KT Nelson’s Cut-Out Guy and Weare’s Drop Down, express the potency of connection, and the relief of communication. Live human exchanges – to be seen and heard by another – gain power and meaning in a world tinged with the sort of global loneliness resulting from increasingly digital lives.

Kate Weare Company in Drop Down

Kate Weare Company in Drop Down

Reclaiming voice, the festival contains a vein of self-reflexivity, moments in the performance when the performer can refer to him/herself from inside and provide commentary on the work.  Lincoln/Seiter’s People Like Us and casebolt and smith in O(h), both employ the self-reflexive, speaking directly to the audience and address meaning making and the content of the dance from inside the performance. To hear a performer think out loud onstage offers a node of connection to deepen the relationship between the performer and the audience. It’s a direct address. The use of performance as critique, appearing in WDDF and beyond with the current work of contemporary performance artists such as Jack Ferver and Jeanine Durning, speaks to the human desire to make meaning.

Embodiment Project in House of Matter

Embodiment Project in House of Matter

Finally the reclamation of identity links the WDDF works of Nelson, Brian Brooks, Nicole Klaymoon and Lincoln/Seiters. The range of normative to performative identities, represented in these dances, indicate the vast choice we possess in how we explore, choose and reveal often hybrid and complex identities. Klaymoon’s House of Matter employs spoken word, individual dance sequences in a cypher-like area and solos that conjure vogueing (a stylized performance of identity that evolved out of the in the 1980s). Cut-Out Guy explores the nuanced physicality of fierceness and fragility among an all-male cast, while Lincoln and Seiters address motherhood and femininity through text, gesture and props. Brooks mediates identity in I’m Going to Explode, ultimately reclaiming his image as a conforming professional businessman in a suit. Each in their own way, the works raise awareness of our constructed and expressed identities.

Taken together, the works of the WDDF, curated by ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke, provide a rich architecture to revisit our environment, relationships, expression and identity.  Bolingbroke correlates the thread of reclamation with “The value in live performance to remind us of our humanity. If artists creating work is about investigating these times in which we live, these artists are trying to get back in touch with something. Back in touch, for example, with a son’s teenage wrestling years and the innocence, support and potential wrapped up in that time. Revisiting and fully realizing a moment isn’t necessarily unique to these artists or this festival, but this festival is an example of why live performance reminds us what it is to be human, have presence and emerge from the daily grind.”

Confronting the Yay-Bay! | By Julie Potter

Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Telstar Logistics

Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Telstar Logistics

I have to thank Stuart Bousel for voicing his frustrations about what he calls “the Yay-Bay” in his post Please Continue Your Conversation at Home. The Yay-Bay is a general attitude and the resulting behavior Bousel describes as:

“Basically the idea being that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam) not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.”

So is the Bay Area a vanguard or an outlier? Consider the definitions:

vanguard – a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas; a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas: “in the vanguard of technical development”

outlier – a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system; a person or thing excluded from a group; an outsider

Being a vanguard implies being a pioneer. Being a vanguard means that one’s work or ideas ripple outward and influence a larger population. I think San Francisco’s ego wants it to be a vanguard, however in many ways the region operates as an outlier, enabled by a degree of Yay Bay behavior.

For example, liberal thinking is not the same as independent thinking. If the majority of people around you are liberal in their views and you are a liberal thinker, then you are not necessarily being independent unless you explore your own criticality and point of view. Independent thinkers do have boundaries, which they set for themselves. Bousel points to a certain flock mentality of Yay Bay, adding “I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.” In tandem, Chicago Tribute film editor Michael Phillips reinforces how the mixed review is indeed the most challenging to write because it requires criticality, independent thinking and collecting evidence, an opinion he shared when I worked with him in 2011.

While the imagination in our city fosters extraordinary artistic achievements from the Beats and the San Francisco Mime Troupe to Anna Halprin’s work as an artist, teacher and healer, comedian Anna Seregina’s performance at SFMOMA, which referenced San Francisco as a “city of misfits” hit home, in describing how rosy universal acceptance in the Bay can lead to a lack of critical thought and reasoning. Acceptance shouldn’t leave you dull in your openness and just feeling the warmies. Perhaps the Yay-Bay effect resulting from a “misfits unite” attitude is the downside to a town influenced by radical acceptance and utopian visions preached by hundreds of Burners.

During a mapping initiative of contemporary performance ecosystems in select American cities spearheaded by Culturebot’s Communities of Practice project, writer Robert Avila and I discussed some pros and cons of what Bousel considers the Yay-Bay effect. On the generative side, experimentation requires a degree of tolerance (amply available here) in order for new work to refresh and innovate contemporary performance. The Bay Area is known as a supportive place for choreographers to produce and grow through creative residencies.

Joe Landini, owner and director of The Garage especially champions emerging artists, facilitating for many a first production experience in the intimate and raw performance space. He rarely prohibits interested artists from performing in his space, and therefore, many Bay Area choreographers have grown from the feedback of a live audience at The Garage. Remember, it’s the quality and honesty of the feedback that matters, which seems to be the issue here. Another example is ODC’s Sandbox Series, which is all process and time in the studio for a choreographer with no charge of production. Sandbox encourages new generation and experimentation without the pressure of editing to make something “good” or “finished” or “performance –ready.”

Eventually, in order to be intentional as an artist and realize a vision, comes the rigor, self-discipline and the importance of editing at some phase in development. There are many wonderful programs fostering these qualities among artists in the Bay as well. Both elements are important. You wouldn’t want the rigor without artistic imagination. Finally, if a showing of experimental research will be performed, call it as such to manage expectations, as Movement Research or the Center for Performance Research would speak about process-oriented performances.

In a conversation about the mapping project, organizer Andy Horowitz recalled Bay Area artist and writer Cara Rose deFabio mentioning that in New York people are afraid to fail and in San Francisco, you really can’t fail. (Of course, the reason being the Yay-Bay.) According to some artists, the ethos has not always been as accepting. Speaking of the 80s and 90s, Amara Tabor Smith comments “Audiences were not as nice and it was real.” So is the Yay-Bay a more recent development?

Additionally, Bousel writes “The Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable”, but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” While the way in which one views the culture results from personal perception and experience, Bousel’s comment does illuminate a particular vibe of the city. Finally, to the frequent snobby comment, “This would never fly in New York,” I have to say that if the art is here in San Francisco, then the Bay is the context for the work and New York doesn’t matter (unless you are touring to New York, in which case you should consider the cultural context and ask “why here, why now?”)

To dig us out of the Yay-Bay issue (and I think we should get digging), we have to develop and exercise independent, critical thought and conversation. We have to do it on our own and trust experience and the brain. Don’t just like something (yay!), but ask why again and again. There’s room to disagree. Independent thinking is not for the lazy or the overly-polite flockers, but we don’t want to be that, do we? Bay Area art will be better with our brains at work.

In Real Life | By Julie Potter

ODC Dance Company in "Transit"

ODC Dance Company in “Transit”

“Making dance is a continuous process interrupted periodically by performance.” comments choreographer Janice Garrett. At a panel discussion for soon-to-graduate Western Michigan University dance majors, Garrett, with Joe Goode and Brenda Way imparted experiences and advice to the young crop of students. The panel was part of the class’s  “dance immersion trip” to explore the scene in San Francisco, entailing an impressive week-long curriculum of performances, visits and regional dance exploration.

Janice Garrett

Janice Garrett

Goode, Garrett and Way established themselves as dance leaders through major contributions extending well beyond the Bay Area, where they’ve been based for decades. All three developed skilled companies and bodies of contemporary work emergent from personal influences and cultivation of individual dance languages. Additionally, serious dance real estate in the region, which helps drive the development and exchange of artists and choreography evolved from the work of both Way, with the multifaceted dance campus, the ODC Dance Commons (where Garrett teaches), and more recently from Goode with the Joe Goode Annex.

All three fuel the potency of Bay Area dance and when the choreographers were each asked to describe their life at 22, the responses served as a reminder that time can be big and we may possess not one, but many lives. Each choreographer shared discoveries about, as Way put it, “Who are we really? Not, who do they want us to be?” – “they” being teachers, families, previous generations of dancers, and mainstream culture full of “shoulds” and flippant assumptions about “real jobs.”

I remember director Mariano Pensotti’s talking about his play, The Past is a Grotesque Animal suggesting that the decade between age 25 and 35 is the time you let go of the person you thought you were going to be to become the person that you are. I’ve also heard since moving to San Francisco (where astrology plays a bigger role than, say, Pittsburgh where I grew up) that one experiences Saturn’s Return – a time of challenge and change – during one’s late 20s and resolves with some shifts by about age 30. Astrology believer or not, these formative years shape divergent lifestyles, including those of the choreographers at the table.

Joe Goode

Joe Goode

Goode was in New York City at age 22 and did not yet know he’d make his own work. Garrett held a math job at a San Francisco law firm and hadn’t event begun dancing seriously. Way had two kids and was living in Paris with the intention to live an adventuresome life. At the time she ran a restaurant and participated in performance Happenings, but did not yet envision a career in dance ahead.

Goode was about 30 when he moved to San Francisco where he danced with Margaret Jenkins and convinced himself to make the work he wanted to see. Garrett, having completed her masters in dance at Mills College, went to New York where she was deeply influenced by Dan Wagoner. Garrett danced in his company and was later exposed to European values through her work with London Contemporary Dance Theater.

Way, at Oberlin College, started an inter-arts department. She questioned how women might express a more complex reality than Balanchine (her mentor) envisioned. Having migrated to the Bay with KT Nelson and Kimi Okada with the vision to develop a company and dance center, Way mentioned owning that vision as a group was key to having the confidence to build.

Brenda Way

Brenda Way

Her advice to the Western Michigan University seniors: “You will need to free up time for the unconscious scanning upon which all creative work depends.” Garrett then spoke to the uncertain nature of the creative process, stating “I’m more comfortable with the terror since I’ve been in that state for so many years.” Goode added, “It’s good to be annoyed,” because it can act as a catalyst.

So are dancers better today? The trio agreed that the answer depends on the specific skills to which you refer. Technically, dancers can do more these days, however performers develop over time and presence cannot necessarily be taught. I agree. Presence is why I loved watching the dynamic cast of mature self-aware dancers gathered by Hope Mohr to perform Behold Bold Sam Dog at the ODC Theater last week. The nuance and commanding attitude demonstrated by these performers cannot be taught in a program. It is achieved through lived experience, self-study and time onstage in performance.

Finally, Way spoke to the strength of dance in today’s digital age: “Who would have guessed that at the turn of the 20th century, the radical contribution of dance would be to bring people together in the same room.” To gather around live art offers the ethereal, visceral, physical presence. The mysterious and unfixed emergence is something your iPhone gadget can never provide.

If a Tree Falls in the Woods | By Julie Potter


Lemi Ponifasio and MAU

“Are we just passing the same 15 dollars around?!” a visiting dance colleague from Philadelphia questions. She speaks to her frustration regarding the relative insularity of dance audiences she observes in her city of residence. She mentions dancers and choreographers attending each others performances, but voices concern over the comparatively small number of audience from outside the already initiated dance community. She wants to make a bigger impact. For her that goes hand in hand with reach.

Reach and impact, art and commerce, popularity, importance and history. Bringing dance into the world requires the negotiation of all of these components. I think impact can be aligned with reach but is not bound to numbers. Choreographers so often equate performing in larger venues with more success. So many artists want to tour so more people can see the work, the thinking being if more people see the work, it will have a greater impact.

If more people see the work, it will have the potential to impact more people, but that doesn’t mean the work will automatically create a greater impact. If a lot of people see a forgettable work, the dance will not have a greater impact than something at a smaller venue, which leaves people buzzing. Who is the work for? It’s about the relationship of the art to the people in the room. Reach versus impact. We shouldn’t ghettoize the idea of small audience art.

Mary Armentrout. Photo by Ian Winters.

Mary Armentrout. Photo by Ian Winters.

In terms of scale, take, for example, Christy Funsch’s Funsch Solos: One on One  in March 2012 at Z Space, which offered audiences a rare opportunity to view solos up close in private viewing booths. This retrospective placed value on the solitude of watching and spaciousness related to that experience. Mary Armentrout’s The Woman Invisible to Herself  at the Sunshine Biscuit Factory included scenes for as few as five to ten people at a time. The intimacy of watching a performer closely talk to herself in a bathroom mirror elicited a contemplative and charged response from those with whom I attended. Both of these performances reached a limited number of people but offered meaningful art experiences for those in the room.

Comparing responses to the limited audience events with those of last week’s close to sold out run of Prophets of Funk by David Dorfman Dance at YBCA, I assert that reach does not equal impact. Comments from the group with whom I attended Prophets of Funk indicated that people were unimpressed, and some dismissive. A few enjoyed the work lightheartedly because of the memories it conjured of a time and place, but did not report being particularly affected. Once person commented that the dance to familiar funk music seemed “populist” and “lowbrow,” which really warrants a further investigation about what those words mean. As someone who loves the Approval Matrix from New York Magazine which explores the brilliance in the “lowbrow” and the despicable in the “highbrow,” I question use of the complicated and problematic words as they really reflect an individual’s attitudes, beliefs and degree of openness. What does it mean, for example, when we see a dance at a bar? That becomes the context, which may just be more appropriate than a proscenium stage for a particular work, like Kim Epifano’s Solo Lo Que Fue. While longer runs and touring do help a dance to mature, a large audience still does not fully dictate the possibility of impact.

In a conversation with visual art staff at the San Francisco contemporary art center, one administrator maintained that strong artistic integrity of an exhibition and importance to the field does not necessarily result in good admission numbers. Sometimes you do a visionary show ahead of its time and it is not well attended but later recognized as a great contribution. While this later recognition works to a degree for the visual arts as exhibits can be shared and circulated after the fact through catalogues, I am reminded of how the shelf life of a museum exhibition far exceeds that of a dance performance, an ephemeral form.

Writer Deborah Jowitt recently wrote about a dance’s impact as “Everything we saw we no longer see. Except in the mind’s eye, where it’ll glimmer for some time.” Measuring impact by memory is an impossible slippery slope. On the brain, doctor John Ratey writes in his book A Users Guide to the Brain:

“The formation and recall of each memory are influenced by mood, surroundings, and the gestalt at the time the memory is formed or retrieved. That’s why the event can be remembered differently by different people. One person isn’t necessarily “right” and the other “wrong.” Memory also changes over time. New experiences change our attitudes and thus how and what we remember. Memories – two minutes, two years and two decades ago – come and go every waking hour. Each one arises from a vast network of interconnected pieces. The pieces are units of language, emotions, beliefs and actions, and here, right away, comes the first surprising conclusion: because our daily experiences constantly alter these connections, a memory is a tiny bit different every time we remember it.”

Even with science about brain plasticity, and shifting memory, I strongly correlate the stickiness of a work and how long it lingers in my mind with how important I consider the dance. Sticky performances matter. Lemi Ponifasio/Mao’s Tempest Without a Body, Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show, and the physically theatrical play, La Raison Blindada all strongly remain in my memory months and years later, having perplexed, provoked and moved me. These are experiences that keep me coming back to performance hopeful and curious. What are your sticky performances?

So are we just passing the same 15 dollars around? Maybe some people in the dance community are. But fixation on getting to the incrementally larger venue to continually be reaching more people is missing the point about why the art has been brought into this world.

Spring Cleaning, Got Baggage? | By Julie Potter

Taylor Mac. Photo by Ves Pitts.

Taylor Mac. Photo by Ves Pitts.

Leave it to Taylor Mac to make me think about the baggage I bring to the theater. During his cabaret-style performance, Comparison is Violence, he firmly asked “What’s your agenda?” Referencing audience members, critics, Ziggy Stardust and Tiny Tim, his words charged everyone as guilty of comparison and having an agenda. Taylor Mac is right. We are guilty, even if we don’t admit it or feel ugly acknowledging the possibility.

We all have an agenda when we go to the theater. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, since it’s a fairly natural state. Agendas are our expectations. If you didn’t have some expectations you wouldn’t go. There’s really no neutral way to show up to a dance performance unencumbered, so I’m not advocating for anyone to check their baggage at the door. I just hope we can remember what we packed.

With performance, the actual live event is situated within a larger arc. Your encounter with a work begins the first time you hear of it. That’s when you begin to develop expectations. Who told you about the work? What images appeared on the flyer? What do the text or video trailer set you up to see? Have you seen the artist before? What do you expect from that particular venue? UC Berkeley Professor Catherine Cole led an illuminating discussion with a group about to see the Voices of Strength performance last October at YBCA,  highlighting the expectations evoked just by the words contained in the title of the show and the advertising images. Every detail is loaded.

Taylor Mac. Photo by Ves Pitts.

Taylor Mac. Photo by Ves Pitts.

Once you decide to attend a performance, is it because you want to be entertained? To have your worldview confirmed or challenged? To be surprised or just mingle socially at the particular gathering? Whatever the why, this is your agenda. Admit it. You have baggage you are bringing to the theater.

Also consider how close or foreign the art form sits in relation to your personal experience and background. What’s the most recent work you saw? Similar to the concept of dance collecting through experience, which I discuss in an earlier post, We Are All Collectors, our baggage accumulates. What of your current joys or conflicts might color the expectations?

Additionally, the voice of a journalist, critic or reviewer might be ringing in your ear. With media as a filter for the selection of how to spend one’s time in a culture of “Likes”, LinkedIn endorsements and Siskel and Ebert thumbs, I’m heartened by certain performing arts writing initiatives aiming to provide more than a recommendation to go or not.

Philadelphia’s multifaceted Thinking Dance operates with the motto “Upping the ante on dance coverage and conversation.” Pop-up newsroom Engine 31  recently provided comprehensive coverage of the Humana Festival mobilizing a national team of reporters for a few days together. Portland’s FRONT magazine operates in a print and live event format merging performance and a parallel creative written output. Also, Claudia La Rocco’s Performance Club fosters experimental and poetic forms of written response to performance from guest writers. Danspace and New York Live Arts both employ writers in residence for contextual content, and just this week HowlRound announced the writers for their NewCrit initiative, skirting reviews in favor of broader more meaningful, critical conversation. Informed content can enhance expectations and add to one’s agenda in a positive light.

Taylor Mac in Comparison is Violence.

Taylor Mac in Comparison is Violence.

The encounter with a work lasts until the final time you think about it. I suppose you could even argue that the encounter lasts beyond the final time you consciously think about it, as exposure to the work becomes part of your overall life experience so its impact can actually linger in a more latent subconscious way forever.

Nobody enters a performance completely neutral and open. What’s the baggage you bring to the theater? By drawing attention to personal agendas and expectations, Mac’s warnings preceded a strangely similar message to that of my yoga teacher just weeks later, creating an amusing collision of glitter, cabaret and Ujjai breaths.


As a follow up to the Boom to Boom article, which appeared April 3, I encourage you to watch this talk about the relationship of the arts to the financialization of American life.  (The big relevant ideas shared in his video warrant a TED talk, in my opinion, however here, NYU Art and Public Policy Chair Randy Martin plainly shares his brilliance from a Brooklyn performance studio.)

Rigor of the Mind and Body | By Julie Potter

Tegan Schwab. Photo by Margo Moritz.

Tegan Schwab. Photo by Margo Moritz.

On the heels of a March retrospective at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, Susan Rethorst will visit San Francisco, hosted by Hope Mohr Dance’s (HMD) The Bridge Project. This initiative situates Mohr, an ODC resident artist, in the hybrid role of choreographer and curator, as well as community gatherer, since this year the project mobilizes Bay Area artists Katie Faulkner, Christy Funsch, Aura Fischbeck, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Deborah Karp, Phoenica Pettyjohn, Peiling Kao to perform with Mohr in Rethorst’s Behold Bold Sam Dog. This performance will share the bill with Mohr’s new work Failure of the Sign is the Sign (May 3-5), thereby framing Mohr’s dance by that of another artist.

Reading this essay about Rethorst, which quotes the artist writing, “Pleasure and rigor are not mutually exclusive,” I’m reminded of conversations discussing Bay Area dance with colleagues from other locales. I’ve heard the criticism (and generalization) that while the density of artists in this city generate a lot of new work, sometimes it “lacks rigor.” Referring to improvisation in performance, I’ve heard mutterings such as “Why would I want to watch someone make something up onstage?” While much of the time spontaneous performance is structured by a movement score worked through during rehearsals developing tools for such live occasions, I’ve been at times engaged and other times dissatisfied by the result. Rigor is not always visible in performance. What is the value of process versus product?

Rethorst weaves her thoughts regarding rigor of the mind as it relates to her body-based practice in her essay, Dailiness, which can be applied as much to watching dance as making dance. She expands on process in a Dance Magazine interview, which queried Rethorst about norms in the U.S. versus Europe:

“In Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, where I’ve been most involved, the language around dancemaking has a lot to do with “research”—and “transparency,” meaning that your research question is visible in your finished work. Reading a lot of theory and philosophy is often considered as important as studio time.”

The pairing of Failure of the Sign is the Sign, Mohr’s work developed with Julia Kristeva’s ideas about language and selfhood, with Behold Bold Sam Dog, by Rethorst who uses writing to scaffold and mediate her creative process, offers a layered mode of absorbing the shared bill through the body and mind, movement and linguistics.

Mohr contextualizes her dance through the people landscape of The Bridge Project and her own associated writing, the artist’s voice. She offers the threads of her process on her blog as well as the text she’s written as part of the sound score heard during the dance – at times in darkness, allowing the words to stand spaciously alone, and other times to be associated and juxtaposed with the kinetic visual snapshots created by her dancers. Here, pleasure and rigor is also expressed in the product:

The soft blue sculpture intertwined with performer Tegan Schwab’s limbs. Pleasure.

The calculated structures of bodies tethered and released in balanced support. Rigor.

In considering the pleasure and rigor of dance making, I think as audience members we should also participate in the pleasure and rigor of watching, which requires a similar attention and presence practiced by the choreographer.

The Contemporary Mixtape | By Julie Potter

“I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do. To go on and on about your soul is to miss the whole point of life. I could say that with more certainty if I knew the whole point of life.” ­ – Sheila Heti, How Should A Person Be? 

In anticipation of Sheetal Gandhi’s Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife) opening the 2013 season at ODC Theater (April 19-21) in San Francisco, I’m reminded how personal hybridity and mashup identity shape our survival and presence as we move between environments and cultures. With the blurring of private and public identity encouraged by the widely accepted use of Facebook, as well as increased globalization and information sharing of the digital age, roles emerge more fuzzy than ever before.


Sheetal Gandhi. Photo by CedarBough T. Saeji.

For example, think about some freelancers you know. The titles people use to self-identify seem to include ever more hyphens and slashes: “I’m a dancer-writer-administrator -yoga teacher-etcetera…” As arts executive Ken Foster points out in his paper “Thriving in an Uncertain World,” we’re a culture of mashups and mixtapes – and Gandhi’s art embodies this collision:

“People can, and do, hold contradictory ideas and experiences in their heads at one time. It’s a level of complex thinking and perceiving that will define the 21st century. The mixtape is the narrative that arises out of this series of mashups. It is a coherent body of work – but it defies classification by conventional measures of aesthetics, genre, or linearity. It’s a hybrid creation of multiple expressions from multiple sources linked by an idea or a concept. It looks like theater, it sounds like music, it draws on mashups of pop culture and profound ideas and creates a new experience. It is the single most powerful metaphor for the contemporary world. And it is our future.”

Much of contemporary hybridity emerges from having more choice than previous generations – even choice about something as fundamental as a family unit. Urban dwellers in America, many living far from a birthplace and nuclear family, adopt chosen family members. Bay Area writer Ethan Watters considers these “urban tribes” the closely-knit communities of friends that spring up during the ever-increasing period of time between college and married life.

At a time when American news outlets report low birthrates and delayed marriage, family life composes the center of Gandhi’s Bahu-Beti-Biwi, as she navigates expectations and priorities of women in Indian culture.  Regarding her artistic identity, Gandhi calls herself a choreographer-director-writer-performer (hello hyphens!). Navigating hybridity she writes in a 2009 reflection paper presented at UCLA, “I can relate with the culture of academia, Broadway actors, my Indian and Indian-American society, circus life, Chinese acrobats, and the particular preferences of each, with the same amount of ease and dis-ease.” While I believe the less shape-shifting we choose to do in the environments through which we transit, the more whole we can feel, Gandhi explores conflicting priorities as she traverses multiple spheres.

Sheetal Gandhi

Sheetal Gandhi. Photo by CedarBough T. Saeji.

Hybridity of identity parallels Gandhi’s movement hybridity, and I look forward to experiencing the calculated undulations and precise gestures she draws from her palette of Kathak, modern and West African dance layered with vocalizations and text. A student of Donald McKayle, rhythm punctuates and textures her work. McKayle deeply integrated rhythm into his dancing. Influenced by Afro-Caribbean, Hindu, and Haitian, this musicality stems from his time in the late 1940’s with New Dance Group, a New York-based ensemble directed by Pearl Primus.

At the University of Irvine, McKayle encouraged Gandhi’s playful nature and nurtured her capacity for rhythm. As a musician, she plays the Calabash, a dried gourd, and the West African Xylophone. To catch the shades of the North Indian form, Kathak, in her work, look for fast footwork, abrupt stops and languid symbolic arm and hand gestures. She also incorporates the polyrhythms of Ghana, where she studied in 1993.

We should also consider Gandhi’s multiplicity of identities such as artist, teacher, student, traveler, circus performer and scholar, although they are less overtly represented in the work. The roles of daughter-in-law, daughter and wife, link women from around the world, although the expectations of these roles drastically differ from place to place. What does it mean to be a good daughter or wife? What roles are prioritized, and for what reasons? How do you live your hybridity? Finally, as Heti, ponders, how should a person be? Gandhi honors her family and North Indian traditions, but urgently dances her desire to break from certain elements of her culture. In this contradictory expression, Gandhi is contemporary in her mixtape.

Boom to Boom | By Julie Potter

The Bay Lights. Photo by Lucas Saugen

The Bay Lights. Photo by Lucas Saugen

When considering the social and cultural context of dance making in San Francisco, the environmental factors created by the tech industry cannot be ignored. Encountering article after article during the past two years about the projected effects of the new tech boom, I’m inclined to mine specifically how the ephemeral art form of dance intersects with the reported transactional and consumerist ethos of San Francisco’s “new” economy.

While the presence of tech has fired creative pursuits including media-based arts and data-visualization endeavors like The Creators Project the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and The Bay Lights, the benefits for dance makers and body-based performance seem to be lacking. In addition, I wonder if the attention to digital art versus live art parallels this statement about a widespread atrophied capacity for live encounters with real humans meeting in time and space.

Boom. The density of tech companies and resulting concentration of economic, social and cultural capital impacts how dance makers live and work. Lauren Elder, who worked with Contraband as the primary visual artist recalls the decade from 1985 as one of the hottest artistic periods the city has seen, including a plethora of visual theater companies and healthy competition among groups to make strong work. “It was easier to produce things then. People had more free time and the city was not the real estate hotbed that it is now. There were a lot more open spaces, vacant lots, abandoned buildings,” she recalls.

Wayne Hazzard, Executive Director of Dancers’ Group danced for companies including Joe Goode and Margaret Jenkins in the 80s and 90s. He remembers the time before the digital age in the Bay Area:

“It was pre- what I call the explosion of San Francisco. In 2000 I really felt like San Francisco became like New York in that you had to really make a decision to live here or not because if you didn’t have a rent controlled place or put down roots it might be too expensive to get back in.”

Artist and Bay Area native Amara Tabor-Smith observed similarly, stating, “Artists who moved in [to San Francisco] after the first tech boom had money to afford living inside this new economy.”

Bust. The post-boom economy drove performance makers to have shorter rehearsal periods and conduct more project-based work. Due to the increased cost of living, many choreographers now spend more time on non-art labor than before the digital age to make ends meet. Some moved to academic settings with studio resources. San Francisco’s median income for a one-person household is $72,100 with low income being below $63,350 and very low income below $39,600 according to the HUD guidelines. While it’s not polite to talk about money, sometimes I wonder what the heck we dance people are doing here given the art form’s reputation for being a far from lucrative pursuit.

Contemporary class with Janice Garrett

Contemporary class with Janice Garrett

And yet, the Bay Area’s dance community is the second largest in the country after New York City. Recent graduates of dance bachelors and masters programs flock here to take advantage of artist opportunities and incubation programs at venues acting both as service organizations as well as presenting entities such as ODC Dance Commons and the ODC Theater with Pilot and the resident artist program, as well as CounterPulse, The Garage and Kunst-Stoff Arts residencies and production support. Places to take class abound in the city with the San Francisco Dance Center, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and the Joe Goode Annex. It’s not that there aren’t wonderfully generative dance organizations, studios and institutions in San Francisco –there are, and some have even grown since the advent of the digital age. Many of the dancers just can’t afford to stay local.

Which brings me to the movement of artists into the East Bay. While there exists an undoubtedly strong presence of dance artists and artistic activity in the East Bay, Oakland is not the “Brooklyn of San Francisco” and performing artists who live outside San Francisco don’t benefit from major funders like the San Francisco Arts Commission, since artists have to be residents of San Francisco to apply. Also worth noting in terms of healthcare is that many San Francisco-based dance artists benefit from Healthy San Francisco, a citywide program providing accessible and affordable basic health care, not available in Oakland. What you gain in space and more affordable rent, you lose in other resources.

Also on my mind are the reportedly transactional and consumerist philanthropic habits of the young tech crowd noted by Ellen Cushing. For dance, a non-object-based art form, the translation threatens:

“A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture,” a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.”

Finally, the below articles provide a compilation of recent cautionary messages about housing, privileged consumption and the potentially depleted cultural vibrancy of San Francisco related to the tech boom. Most of the messages are bleak, pointing to the vast lifestyle differential between dot-commers and others:

“Is a new tech bubble starting to grow?” USA Today

“The new dot-com boom” Canadian Business

“San Francisco Tech Boom Brings Jobs and Worries” The New York Times

“How Much Tech Can One City Take?” San Francisco Magazine

“Google Invades” London Review of Books

“The Bacon-Wrapped Economy” East Bay Express

So are there benefits of the tech boom’s impact for performance makers? If there are, I haven’t gleaned them yet, but maybe you can help me see the silver lining? San Francisco’s choreographers have rallied to continue making work here and longstanding dance organizations facilitate new development and nurture the imaginations and talents, even in less hospitable living circumstances for artists.

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