Leyya Tawil in Conversation with Linda Weintraub

Bay Area based choreographer and dance artist Leyya Tawil, also known for her extensive collaborations with composers Christopher Keyes (1999-2008), Mark Gergis (2009-2010), Lars J Brouwer (2011-2013), and Mike Khoury (ongoing), has been traveling the globe touring her current project Destroy// since its inception in San Francisco in 2012. Performed internationally in 19 cities thus far (including New Orleans, Amsterdam, Rome, Brooklyn, Athens, Berlin, Phoenix, Detroit, Oulu, Den Haag, and an upcoming addition in Cairo), Destroy// reassembles a new group of dancers and musical collaborators in each city to engage her two-part choreographic process, first to build and then to destroy. In conversation with curator, educator, artist, and author Linda Weintraub, they discuss doodling, “the new contemporary,” dancing against and through walls, nervous system communication and nausea, being a trained beast, and how the social can be revealed through the range of responses to Tawil’s choreographic prompt: "Destroy// is not about destroying the dancer, it is about destroying the material."


Linda Weintraub: What makes you comfortable when you're talking?

Leyya Tawil: I have to talk with something in my hand.

LW: Like a baton, a banana, what do you like to talk with?

LT: I like to have a pen in my hand and its not to write necessarily, but just to fidget with. I doodle.

LW: Aha, what do your doodles look like?

LT: They're mostly grids they generally start with a square and then I fill some of it in. They usually have straight lines. It just goes on from there.

Doodles, Leyya Tawil

Doodles, Leyya Tawil

LW: While we're talking, you might like to doodle. I often thought that a serious study of Celtic music and Celtic dance, for instance, would reveal that the patterns with the feet on the floor are similar to the patterns made by the hand on the page. So let’s see if that is true with you...

LT: Okay, I'll probably destroy it at some point, and that definitely is part of my process. I create something and then I make it look like a mess.

LW: Do you choreograph with notation?

LT: I used to when I did more formal works that were spatially oriented. They were about design, dancer here, dancer there, over here, arrows. But then my work changed. Now I hold the work in my body. I don't take notes at all. Part of my process is memory. So I'll work in the studio and the next day, only what I remember stays. What I've been doing lately is creating scores so I have bunches of material in my body.

LW: Material is a set of movements?

LT: Yeah, a set of movements that change day to day. One day they might be quite landed, really deliberate, and the next day they might be more open. I improvise often. The material that I hold in my body is what I reference during the solo works. Atlas. (2014) definitely has choreographed sections but they weren't choreographed in space and they aren’t necessarily choreographed in how precisely they are delivered. I have the movement somewhere in my nervous system that I allow myself to tap into at certain sections.

LW: I've been studying the creative process and, of course, improvisation is an important part of the creative process. There seems to be a definable characteristic that distinguishes a good improviser. It seems an improviser who generates an experience that merits an audience’s attention accumulates mental patterns. They don't have to think of what they are going to do note-by-note or instant-by-instant. Instead they call upon structured patterns that have become ingrained through practice. Is that what you're referring to?

LT: Yes, and I use the term ‘reference point’ a lot. I have these reference points that I tap into. With Destroy// there are four sections of choreography. These are the reference points. But the dancer determines how they’re delivered.

LW: So basically you start with patterns or sequences of a specific kind of movements? No open improvisation? No beginning, middle, end? Where do you want the piece to go dynamically?

LT: Let me explain by referring to a solo work Atlas. because it will help create the language that we can apply to Destroy//. That work is in three sections. It wasn't in three sections linearly but I had three sorts of "states" that I could fall into. The first state was rolling back and forth the full length of the performance space while lying prone on the floor. There are so many metaphors embedded in the simple decision, "I'm going to roll back and forth until I can't roll anymore."

LW: Do you continue to the point of exhaustion?

LT: I do. I roll in one direction and then undo the roll in the other direction until I don't know where the front of the space is.

LW: You are panting. Is that was part of the drama or part of your body's reaction?

LT: [laughter] That was full, full truth. I'm putting myself in a compromised position and then assigning myself the task to stand up and do a piece of choreography that I know so well, because I made it. It is in my body, but I actually can't do it!  Just standing up is a journey. So I stand up and dance the material, but it evolves while I'm doing it because I can't do it "right." I can't fulfill my intent because of the state that I'm in. I don't know where my feet are and I don't know where the front of the room is. Then the choreography comes out of a nervous system state and not a state of ego-delivery. I'm actually dancing myself back into sobriety. And that's really interesting to me.

When my head stops spinning and my body recalibrates I go to the next section. So I roll until I can't anymore, then I dance this material until I recalibrate. Once I recalibrate, I go the third collection of material. All this also depends upon what I access from the room. I let it fulfill itself depending on what is going on.

LW: In Destroy//, your performers are not doing free improvisation either?

LT: No, in Destroy// they are given four pieces of material: Walking, Long Loop, Tiny Loop, and Infinite Loop. The Walking is the journey into the piece. It’s the preparation for the audience and the performers and the musicians to just tap in. To test the waters. Walking already creates a layer of disorientation. The dancers’ backs face the audience. They are standing in a line close to the front row of the audience. No one sees their faces process. They walk up to the wall and walk away from the wall, and walk up to the wall and away from the wall.

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Detroit, photo: Lisa Frank

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Detroit, photo: Lisa Frank

When they're walking forward toward the wall they're telling their nervous systems that they're walking backward. While they're walking backwards, they're thinking to their nervous system that they're walking forward. So that creates a certain amount of tension in the belly, and their eyes are on the horizon fixed. Then when they feel like they've established that, and their nervous system understands what’s going on, they lift their eyes. They establish a fixed point with their higher selves. They are looking at their higher horizon. When they walk forward their head lifts a little bit and when they walk back it levels. All the dancers are walking at their own pace. They often report that they begin to feel nauseous even in the Walking section.

LW: How long does this section continue?

LT: It can last 5 minutes sometimes it lasts 12 minutes.

LW: And one by one they choose when to change his or her focus?

LT: Yes its very self-determined. While they're walking to and from the wall, things start to happen. They first start to come into the questions that are embedded in Destroy//.

LW: Who is ‘they’?

LT: The dancers and the audience. Over the course of the four sections, the dancers are asked to make choices based on going up to a wall.

LW: It seems the dancers knock up against a physical wall until they reach a physical limit which affects their mental state.

LT: We talk a lot about how to recognize your walls and how to go through them in the build. And each section has a rubric for dealing with the walls. So the walking is just go up to it and back. Then they go through the first wall, meet a second wall, go through the second wall, until they meet an infinite wall. The walls are psychological, they're emotional, and they’re physical. They're sometimes based in ego, but they're self-editing. So we talk about the walls and we talk about the choices to make in order to go through the walls. I ask the dancers not to make their decisions based on composition or aesthetics. Walking is designed to last too long.

LW: From the audience perspective or the dancers?

LT: Both.

LW: Is your intention to arrive somewhere? Is it a negative or a positive goal?

LT: I think it is very positive because if we're not making compositional choices and aesthetic choices, then the choices become personal and based in curiosity. So the dancers go through different states of falling apart. I'm asking them to fall apart – no I'm not. I'm asking them to let the material fall apart. So, Destroy// is not about the dancer being destroyed, it’s about the material being destroyed to reveal the material underneath material.

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Berlin, photo Voula Saloniki

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Berlin, photo Voula Saloniki

LW: Do the dancers experience this in rehearsal, or only in performance?

LT: We never rehearse. We build. So I build using the choreographed material, but no one ever sees the choreographed material they only see the attempt to destroy it.

LW: As in Atlas. You do not let the audience see the choreography you later can’t perform. They are not given the opportunity to witness the whole, only the destruction. Is that also true of Destroy//? And do you intentionally do that?

LT: It's intentional because we all know how to dance. We're all trained beasts. You know, we've seen dancers dancing successfully, with theatrics, with sharp composition and spatial intent. All these things are awesome and great and I can make those dances. But I want to see other things happen on stage. There is a cultural implication when you're not doing something that is prescribed. So sure, I can show you the choreography, you can see it, it’s clean, I can show you all of the things that I think are great to do, a cool dance.

LW: Still, the audience for your work doesn’t know your body’s strength and agility, so I could never say, "There is somebody who is compromised."

LT: Right. Destroy// does do that; it has that built in. In the Walking, the dancers are just looking at the wall. They are not pressing against the wall. They are not even touching the wall. But when they enter the Long Loop, the first thing that happens is each dancer one at a time, does this very “awesome piece of choreography.” There’s a leg and an arm and some floor work and turning and twirling and its fast and cool. They do it, and it’s hard and everyone in the audience can see "oh, these are trained beasts." And then they come back to the lineup where they started, and then they do it again. And they do it again, faster than they want to, just a little bit of rubbing against that wall. The Long Loop happens three times. It starts to get a little less successful and a little less deliberate, their ego begins to exit. The third time includes disorienting their eyes while doing it. That is when they start to rub against safety. How do you disorient your eyes while still trying to track your body for a pretty long stretch of choreography while also not kicking another dancer or falling on your head. These are just the ways we start to hit up against the wall.

The there's Tiny Loop. In Tiny Loop, the dancers have four discreet pieces of choreography. Discreet meaning short little bursts, tiny loops! They do each one until they hit their first wall and they can't do it anymore.  I ask them to go through that wall, keep going and look for their second wall. They keep repeating A, A, A, A until A starts to sound like something else, feel like something else. The dancers make a physical, emotional, psychological agreement with themselves. They have to change how they attack the material in order to keep going and to reach the second wall. Once you hit the second wall, you move on. This section is the peak of chaos. The chunks of material overlap, and everyone is pacing themselves differently and there is a lot going on.

LW: So the core movements are identical for everyone in the group. But there could be one dancer who proceeds very quickly and another who will do it for a much longer time.

LT: Absolutely.

LW: What happens to the dancers who cease to perform?

LT: They stand with the musicians. That's the signifier that they have gone through all the Tiny Loops. There are some really interesting psychological things that happen in Tiny Loop, because some people have a lot of endurance. The wall has to be about curiosity. So as dancers start to exit, perhaps six of them have left and there are four remaining. The remaining dancers see the space open up. They think, "Who is going to be the last one standing?"

LW: It’s a kind of competition?

LT: Hopefully not. That's ego. The worst-case scenario is when dancers make decisions based on, “I wanna be the first or the last.” In another scenario, they think, "Oh this is great, the four of us, we can really supercharge each other.”

After Tiny Loop there is Infinite Loop. In Infinite Loop, the dancers are hitting every wall and going through every wall until they cannot dance anymore and their curiosity is dead. There is nothing more to say. That is when they tap out. It is usually a physical wall, but sometimes it is because the material is just not evolving. If you have stopped evolving, you tap out.

LW: Physically, on stage, how do they do that?

LT: They touch the back wall for the first time. They have to make contact with the wall and stay there and they hangout. One at a time, the dancers tap out.

LW: Are they watching each other? Are there backs still to the audience?

LT: At that point, it’s survival. Some of the dancers might be doubled over because they're going to throw up. Some of them are watching, some of them are closing their eyes and listening to the music. Sometimes it’s hard to close your eyes in that state, because Infinite Loop has a lot to do with head rolls. Everyone deals with nausea differently.

LW: What art conventions are you intent on destroying? 

LT: I have been dancing so long. These procedures get my nervous system to create something new. It is selfish actually. I want to do something new.

LW: When people sign up to become part of Destroy//, do they know they are going to undertake an endurance experience that leads to disorientation and nausea?

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Detroit, photo: Christina de Roos

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Detroit, photo: Christina de Roos

LT: Not really, no. It all happens in the Build workshop; we build the work in four hours. After these four hours, someone usually says, “I am not prepared to do this” or “It’s not the right time in my life to do this”, or they say, "Ah, I got called in to work!" [laughter]. I respect that, because you only want to go through a process like this willingly. I take notes because every time I teach Destroy// the questions that the dancers ask me in the Build are indicative of where they are coming from, what their training is, what their cultural norms are. So I take notes about what questions they ask and what comes up. This helps me articulate the work for them. So the way I am explaining the story to you is a little different than the way I would describe it to a group of dancers. For example, in Phoenix, because there was a young crew, I found myself using different language than what I used in Berlin, where I had a group of dancers who are hyper trained and engaged in improvisational practices and mapping techniques. I was able to dive into the deep end with them and get detailed about the nervous system layer of the piece. I change my language.

LW: When do you think, "I'm so glad I worked with that dancer" or "that dancer was wonderful"?

LT: My favorite Destroy//s are the ones where I feel the support of the other dancers. We're not looking for these supportive relationships. They just happen because you're in this ritual together. And the ritual is a group ritual although the walls are personal; you're all doing this same simultaneous but individual ritual together. So there are moments where you're really about to pass out and someone will swoop by you and you'll get a second wind and you're like, "Oh, I can do this, this actually feels great." The air is charged. It feels real. But sometimes it feels like you're just in isolation. This is another way the work can denote culture. So, just as you might in the tiny process, you go into the bigger picture.

LW: Please tell me about the post performance aspects of this work. Do you keep in touch with the dancers? What do they report back? Are there long-term effects?

LT: That is part of the research. After Destroy// happens, I ask the dancers if they are willing to give me their feedback. So I get a bunch of emails in the following weeks.

LW: Is there a consensus or a pattern? What do you find out?

LT: It’s different if they are able to do it twice. The build takes four hours but sometimes we will do two shows, or maybe even four shows. That's extreme...but two is really great - a lot of the feedback is, "On the first night, when I tapped out, I was disappointed because I knew I could've kept going.” Sometimes it seems that they were anticipating their walls. "Oh that's a wall, I'm done, go to the next thing, that's another wall, I'm done, go to the next thing" and they kind of “accomplish” the dance but they haven’t allowed themselves look for the deeper underneath. But once they tap out, they are able to witness the people that kept going and learn that they had more to unearth, so the next day that could possibly go there.

LW: Confronting your own limits has enormous ramifications. I could imagine this being either extremely empowering or the opposite. Do you take responsibility for the mental state of all of these dancers?

LT: I can't say I do, but I try. The majority of feedback that I get is: "Thank you for taking me through this process." They have taken on either what their body is capable of, or what their emotional resilience is, or the psychological warfare that is embedded in Destroy//. The reflections are often: "This came at a perfect time in my life.”

LW: It's like walking on fire.

LT: It is. And the dancers bring to the piece their individual warfare.

LW: I wonder about using dancers as your demographic for this, because dancers are inclined to test their physical limits and their stamina. It is part of the preparation of the body and the spirit for a performance career. Dancers have been doing grueling practices throughout their careers. They don't need the experience you are offering as much as non-dancers.

LT: Destroy// dancers who are engaged in some social or community practice say that this would be so great for their beginning students or great for their non-professional adults.

LW: What about all the timid people in the world? This could be very empowering for them.

LT: It is a super empowering piece.

LW: Or the opposite, it could be devastating.

LT: It is true. People bring their personal narratives into it. It is not just physical.

LW: Please explain the relationship between what the dancer’s experience and potential benefit as compared to the audience’s. How do you prepare the audience to think, "It’s just fine that I'm not looking at perfectly choreographed sequences in which skilled dancers fulfill the choreographers’ intentions?"

LT: What people call dance now is so much larger. Now it means choreography of society and choreography of relationships between people and things.

LW: What IS contemporary about contemporary dance? What distinguishes dance in the current era from dance in the year 2000?

LT: The choreographers that I know and respect who are pushing dance forward right now are trying to create a different model of relationships - not just between dancer and dancer, but dancer and audience, and also dancer and society, and stage and society. So what we're doing onstage is actually a suggestion for how we can treat one another in the world. Contemporary dance is a suggestion about how we wish the world would be. It is less about art reflecting society and more about art going through the wall and creating something more. This is a search for future forms.

LW: What is on the other side of the wall? "Destroy" is a negative word. It means you have taken something that was functional and you have rendered it inoperable and it can never be used again. It is gone. But now you're talking about getting beyond the wall, as if something positive is coming. What are they destroying when they destroy choreography, metaphorically?

LT: We're destroying the prescribed way of living, prescribed way of doing things. And we're looking for what is the dance that emerges when someone can't do what they think they are supposed to do.

LW: And the assumption under all this is that the ‘something’ that follows will be more meaningful, more fulfilling, more exciting on the positive spectrum?

LT: Yes, something on the positive spectrum. For me, positive is something new, something revealed. Even if you're revealing something grotesque, to me that's positive versus just staying in the safety zone of control. So, you take away control mechanisms because we're exhausted, or something is too complex, or we're disoriented. All these things take away control, but we are still people enacting.

LW: But the audience witnesses the point where something positive can happen. But it stops there. We never see the positive breakthrough. We just know these are depleted human beings. We are left with the question, "Will they recover?" more than "What wonderful level of sensitivity or creativity are they now going to explore?"

LT: That's what my mom said, “Where's the part where you rise up? Where is the phoenix part?”

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Oulu, photo: Iivari Karjalaine

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, Oulu, photo: Iivari Karjalaine

LW: We get to the launching point of a new experience, but we don’t take off.

LT: Let me talk about audience for Destroy//. This is from audience reports and feedback to me. They don't actually watch Destroy//; they are sucked into it. So the audience is absolutely part of the ritual. We don't have witnesses. Instead, we have two layers of participation: we have the dancers and the audience. You can't witness a group of people weeping or laughing without feeling some sort of kinesthetic or visceral resonance where you are weeping or laughing with them.

LW: Since the exhaustion and discomfort is real, it reminds me of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic. They extend themselves to the point when the audience feels an urge to rescue them.

LT: Absolutely, and there are parts where the audience feels nauseous, they're exhausted, but they also say, "I know exactly what that felt like and I felt camaraderie with the dancers," like "I've been there."

LW: But I'm talking about putting your arms around the dancers and supporting them as they walk back to the wall.

LT: They've said that, they've said, "I wanna just either stop them or hold them." The audience worries. But then there is a little blend of hope, for lack of a better word, in that we know that the dancers are making their own choices. So they are not doing anything for me and they are not doing anything for you - the audience. They're not doing anything other than their own path. When the dancer is done, she or he has reached an infinite wall. That is when they take themselves out and they own it.

LW: I can tell you what I would be longing for at this point. These dancers have shared a very unique experience. They have gone through this journey together; they have arrived at this together. I would want them to embrace each other. After all they have endured, at least give them the love of community, letting them bond through adversity. It would seem maddening if they kept cool and everyone went home to their little place with a refrigerator full of stuff.

LT: Absolutely. I'm going to give you really beautiful examples of that. Every city where I've created this work holds itself differently. The Destroy// in Rome is worlds apart from the Destroy// in Amsterdam, which is worlds apart from the group of Detroit dancers, which is worlds apart from the dancers in Finland. How they treat each other is really explicit and plays out in the score. Amsterdam produced a very heady version of Destroy//. I mean intellectual but it manifested physically. Their head rolls were very high up in the cervical spine. And they were trying to attempt the loops in a perfect-western-European way. This Destroy// was very theoretical. And then I went to Rome where the infinite loop dropped right into the heart center. Their loops came from their sternum and their Destroy// was super emotional, like an outpouring of passion. In Detroit, everyone hit it really hard, and there was real contact. I could feel down the line that there was a lot of holding each other in a really strong way. In Phoenix, we actually held hands. As soon as we'd tap out there was actually hand holding.

LW: You give no direction for this?

LT: No, it just happens. In Finland, as they started to tap out, they all started smiling. Literally, someone would tap out and you would just see joy on their face. It was a contagious ecstasy. Partially because we were outdoors and so the section called “fall from the ceiling” - one of the tiny loops – was called “falling from the sky” and so it was just otherworldly to watch these women fall from the sky.

LW: This work contains two elements of prayer: endurance and rhythmic repetition. You are working with two means of transcending the mundane state that have been used in religious ceremony since the beginning of time.

LT: Yeah, its true, its true. But I don’t teach the spiritual-ritual aspect of it. I teach it from a dance-research perspective.

LW: Why is this aspect of the work missing from your description of it?

LT: Because I want the outcome to speak for itself. So what I like to do is after each Destroy//, I write to record what happened. That is when I start to understand the place.

LW: Do you show this to the dancers?

LT: I've just been collecting. The journal is very thick, the feedback is thick, and the pile of videos and photography is high. I plan to peel it apart and put it back together. I will ultimately analyze the data, but now I’m just collecting. A significant component of this work is the material that hasn't yet been shared. This work is more than the sum of individual experiences. It is comparative.

LW: Once you've assembled all this material, what's it going to become?

LT: I don't know. A book? A blog? A video? I want to zoom-out.

LW: Is the research complete or do you need some more examples?

LT: I'm going to Cairo next week! This is a different training ground, a different cultural perspective, a different political landscape. Sometimes really personal stories come up. Sometimes it is a very dancerly take, and sometimes it is a very social take. And sometimes the trends are per individual and sometimes per community. Cairo is going to be awesome.

LW: Do you initiate these residencies?

LT: Sometimes. And how I get dancers and musicians is also part of the process. We put out a call with a very limited amount of information, announcing that you'll be learning choreographed material and how to destroy it. That is already a self-selector. Destroy// selects its own dancers; I don't have to.

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, San Francisco, photo: Ricardo Esway

Destroy//, Leyya Tawil, San Francisco, photo: Ricardo Esway

LW: You get a group of people you've never met before and they're put into a room and there you are. What is the first thing that happens?

LT: The very first thing that happens is that I say, "Thank you for being here," and, "Destroy// is not about destroying the dancer, it is about destroying the material."

LW: Except the dancers may not be destroyed, but they certainly are tested.

LT: Absolutely, but I have to keep reminding them throughout the four hour Build that they are in charge. They are in charge of their safety, they are in charge of how the material destructs, they are in charge of their curiosity, they are in charge of their comfort. They're in charge of everything; it’s completely self-determined. I'm giving them material and I'm giving them choices. They tap out whenever they want.

LW: Do you know how Carolee Shneemann constructed Meat Joy (1964)? She did extensive work with a group of dancers and constructed precise choreography for them: when you enter, when you leave, when you roll, when you interact, the whole thing. But they did not receive their props until performance time. The very first time they held the raw fish or the chunk of meat was in front of the audience. Their interactions with the materials were authentic. In this case, interacting with visceral stuff destroyed the structure. Is there any parallel with your work?

LT: Yes! In the case of the Destroy// performance/presentation, the dancers don't know what is going to happen because they don't know what they're going to go through until they go through it.

LW: Does this factor into an answer to the question, "What is contemporary about contemporary dance?"

LT: We're experiencing very little interest in proscenium staging, classical or even studio-theater staging. We're seeing dance become much more touchable. It is closer to you. It exists in spaces that refer to site-context. Today’s dance is more human. New choreographers are not trying to create fictions. Real human interactions are choreographed. This means the audience is able to see and feel the dancers in a different way. This is the part where I start to fumble because it has a lot to do with touch, but not physical contact. It is about the communication of dance to its audience. We don't have a ‘myth of the dancer.’

LW: Does that mean there is less rigorous training going on?

LT: Often very trained dancers are placed in pedestrian-type frames. For instance, performers thread themselves through the audience. They perform walking patterns that are interwoven with very visceral or animalistic actions. But by the way they do these seemingly animal procedures and walk, you can tell that they are hyper-trained. The dance isn’t about twirls and kicks, but it comes from rigor. They know exactly what their nervous systems are doing and they know what it is delivering to the nervous system of the audience. And that to me is the new contemporary. The delivery is more about nervous systems. There is nervous system communication, rather than a muscle-bone communication which stays contained.

LW: The nervous system is not contained?

LT: That is how dance communicates. The choreographers are invoking the dance inside the audience's body, versus just showing them a dance. They are actually invoking a dance.

LW: Nonetheless, your work evokes a strong sense of voyeurism because your dancers never acknowledge the audience. Their eyes never meet ours. Are we being excluded?

LT: As an experienced performer, I know how to look at an audience and pull them into my psyche. I'm interested in seeing how I can do that with my body and my limbic system. I want to direct their experience and not direct their eyes. I'm very deliberate with my focus. I look over here, look over there. I invite the audience to energetically watch me watch something. The angle of the head reads, my arms read, my legs read, my spine reads, and maybe my organs read. But I'm not giving people my narrative because I want then to have their own narrative. So it is a very conscious choice to not share my narratives so you can have your own.

LW: I hope the readers of this interview are as inspired by your insights as I am. Thank you, Leyya.

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choreography, dance, destroy, improvisation, Leyya Tawil, Linda Weintraub


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