Michael Trusnovec

The Paul Taylor star speaks up.

  • Photograph: Jordan Matter

    Michael Trusnovec

  • Photograph: Tom Caravaglia

    Michael Trusnovec, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Amy Young

  • Photograph: Tom Caravaglia

    Michael Trusnovec, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Amy Young

  • Photograph: Tom Caravaglia

    Michael Trusnovec, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Amy Young

Photograph: Jordan Matter

Michael Trusnovec

While a student at Southern Methodist University, Michael Trusnovec—now the revered senior member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company—met Annmaria Mazzini, who was passionate about all things Taylor. They took an immediate liking to each other: "She started calling me 'Michael Boy,'" Trusnovec recalls. "She thought I looked like a Walton." This season, just a year shy of his 15th anniversary with the company, Trusnovec appears in two new works—The Uncommitted and Gossamer Gallants—as well as in more than a dozen others, including Aureole and Big Bertha. Just as it's a big year for the company, which has moved to Lincoln Center, it's also a big season for Trusnovec, who retains the essence of Taylor no matter the part—dark, light, loony or scary. This dancer, who grew up loving Fred Astaire, can do it all.

What are you looking forward to this season?
There are so many things. Definitely the theater move. Everything about [the David H. Koch Theater] is so beautiful for dance. I think it will freshen the dances for people that have seen them a million times. It's like doing Taylor new again. There are so many great dances in the rep this year. I always love going back to Syzygy, Beloved Renegade.... I love House of Cards. I think it's a really quirky, interesting find—unexpected to me. I must have looked at a little film at some point, because [Taylor alumnus] Joo Carvalho teaches it in class sometimes and I think vocabulary from that dance has been pulled out. It will look like family. Things in Piazzolla Caldera—there's a men's duet that kind of correlates. But it's really quirky and odd. It's very different than all the other dances in the rep. The costumes are strange. It feels like this is what the dancers wore to work that day—leotards and tights and sweatpants and leg warmers.

Right: It's period—1981.
[Laughs] Definitely. But the vocabulary in that dance is really good. You see the early genesis of other dances. It's a dance like Orbs or Scudorama, which are precursors to Last Look and other dances. I'm super excited about Aureole, too. I've never danced it in a New York season. I did one performance for Patrick [Corbin] in 2004.

Did Paul teach you Aureole?
Not specifically. He definitely coached me. There are little details about playing to the four corners, like the sky, the heavens—and then you keep coming back to the blessing of the earth. There's something sacred about the ground. I thought that was nice to hold onto. I like ideas to be kept as simple as possible. If it gets too detailed, I get lost. Just thinking about the corners of the space and the floor was enough for me.

Because you like to rely on your imagination?
Yeah. I don't want to get bogged down in thoughts; I can do the movement and see what happens, and not force it to be a particular way. What else did he say? Playing up the importance of stillness in that solo. Allowing the movement to stop. My tendency is to keep everything moving and smooth. So really finding those places to be still and finding an impulse of energy that breaks up the long, smooth line of continuous movement.

Could we go way back? You began dancing when you were six on Long Island. Is it true that you followed a neighbor to a class?
Yes, I used to watch her when she was taking classes. I remember seeing her taking ballet class, but I feel like I actually started in what must have been a jazz-tap-combo kind of class.

Do you remember loving it?
Immediately. My mom always said that whenever music came on, I was the one drawn to the music, the dancing. So it could have been hearing music in the way that made me feel like I wanted to move. There was also the tap thing, so it might have been playing into that love of music and rhythm—I loved the way it played in my ear, so that ear-to-body connection was fun for me.

Did you watch tap before you started tap dancing?
It was after I started dancing that I started seeing the films of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and going to see Broadway shows. It progressed from there. But in school—as far back as being eight or nine years old—it was: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I always wrote, "Dancer." What a weird thing for a little kid to write. [Laughs]

Did you catch grief?
Absolutely. I give a lot of credit to teachers at the time who kept saying, "Stay, stay, stay—don't let them sway you," when I would say, "I'm never taking ballet class again. I can't take the bullying at school." It could be horrible. Kids are ruthless. I'm grateful for those teachers who said, "Don't quit." Later, I went to an arts high school [Long Island High School for the Arts], and by then I was much more strong-willed and didn't care what anyone was saying. It's that impressionable 12 or 13 that's horrible. And I wasn't a tall kid—I was small and slight. Plus, I always did well in school, so that probably lent to the torture. Oh, he's good at school and he's a dancer.... But I survived. Good family, good friends.

Your parents had never heard of Paul Taylor, right?
I had never heard of Paul Taylor. [Laughs] Not until high school. I feel like there was a dance-history course where there was a mention of, but I don't remember it leaving an impression. At that point, I was Broadway, Broadway, Broadway. I didn't care about modern dance. I appreciated it, but it didn't speak to me.

What musicals were you drawn to?
West Side Story,
I loved. Singin' in the Rain was probably the first Broadway show I saw. I remember being amazed. I loved the film. I was also obsessed with watching Fred Astaire movies. Something about him captured me: The way he moved was so graceful and easy and so musical. The way he played with rhythms was brilliant. He always looked so classy. There was something odd and strange about him, too. I recently read his autobiography; he had such an interesting life, and it's always nice to hear about somebody who was kind of normal. Just to imagine what that life must have been like in that time—to have been a dancer like him. It must have been very strange. Exciting and horrible at the same time.

Why horrible?
How difficult life could be—the vaudeville, the touring. To go from not making any money and to falling into the movies and becoming a big star and to have the ridicule that he had for so long. He was always in the shadow of his sister and no one even noticed him and then all of a sudden, he was the star. I love that underdog kind of thing.

What are your favorite Astaire films? Do you have any that you return to?
Top Hat
and Follow the Fleet. I have the box set and one day I want to have a marathon. I love the Top Hat number where he's just in the line of all the gentlemen in tuxedos. There's a clip of him on YouTube that got some press recently because he's in blackface; it's from Swing Time. The dance he does is incredible, but it is a little strange: Not only is he tap dancing, but he's playing a drum set with his feet at the same time.

You ended up going to Southern Methodist University. Did you audition?
I didn't. Because of a National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts [honor], they recruited me. I got a phone call at home one night from Joe Orlando, who was the jazz teacher and recruiter at SMU, and he basically offered me a free scholarship over the phone. I hadn't decided yet where to go; I think Point Park had accepted me. I had people pushing me toward Juilliard, but I just kept saying no. I had gone to visit the school and something about it didn't appeal to me. I was fearful that if I went to school in New York I wouldn't finish—that I'd wind up getting a job or getting distracted. That, coupled with the non-academic thing.... I wanted a school that had academics as well, that was a well-rounded program. I didn't want to just dance.

But you never visited SMU?
Never. My parents put me on a flight with suitcases and I went off to college. [Laughs] They were more freaked out about it than I was. I was relaxed—or at least putting on that facade. I got there and fell in with people that I liked, although I do remember not liking the program that much during the first year. I had everything in place to transfer to CalArts. It didn't feel like an equal emphasis on the ballet-modern-jazz and I was still such a jazz person and wanted the Broadway thing. A couple of the teachers took me out to lunch and really talked me out of it and said, "Give it another year." There was a new chair coming into the program who was going to bring more guest artists, and it was going to be different. They were right. It changed drastically.

Did it change or did you?
Both. I changed a lot because of Annmaria. She was two years ahead of me. The closer we got, the more she was directing my focus to different things. I was working with her as a choreographer at school, sharing her love of Paul Taylor, watching the videos she had. Those things definitely changed me. And then the program started to offer more real repertory. I remember doing an Anna Sokolow piece called Ballade, which I loved doing. Ann Reinking came in and did some Fosse stuff. Over those three years, we did [Balanchine's] Serenade, Doris Humphrey's Passacaglia, a Momix piece and the best part was that we did [Taylor's] Esplanade in my senior year.

Who taught Esplanade?
Joao. He was the first person, really, with whom I had an extended period of Taylor immersion. He has such a beautiful approach to moving in the Taylor way—he's so dynamic and strong and acrobatic, but a lot of those qualities are opposite to the way I like to move. Maybe that's what I was drawn to. Also, he's so loving and generous. He's definitely been one of the people I come back to constantly, to get his feedback and to ask him questions about things. When he watches rehearsals, I always appreciate the things he has to say.

Did you meet Annmaria Mazzini in class?
Yes. We fell in love with each other. There was something magical—I adore her. She started using me in the dances she was making. As soon as she showed me Last Look, I was sold. It was the theatricality of it and that it had such a clear definition of character: You didn't just see a bunch of dancers doing steps, you saw people—human beings with different feelings and emotions. I connected immediately.

You performed Last Look, right?
I couldn't even believe it. In the first show, Annmaria and I were in it together, and we just looked at each other like, How did we get here? How did this happen? It was even better to do it. I'd only seen it once live; we were sitting next to one another at City Center, and I was blown away. After, I think I said something like, "I don't ever want to see that dance again. I want to do it." And the next time, I was doing it.

What is your natural movement tendency?
As seemingly effortless as possible. Even though there's a lot of work going on, I want it to look and feel as if it's the easiest thing in the world. Like breathing.

Like Astaire?
Exactly. For me, dancing is so much about the line and the clarity of shape. Those are things that it's hard for me to let go of sometimes and to just move free, wild and kind of crazy. I love when that happens in a dance like Syzygy—that's why I think I'm drawn to it. [The movement is] so thrown away, so it's an opportunity to let go of all those things that I'm so focused on and to do something different. I think for Paul in a dance like that, [the goal is] just to make as much movement as possible.

Going back to Esplanade, what part did you perform at SMU?
The same as I do now: the spinning-guy solo. The version we did was different because I think we did the original casting—the Nick Gunn part, and he did everything basically. He did the first section and the man in the slow section. I remember it being exhausting. No one has that kind of stamina unless you've been doing the dance for years. It's funny how different it feels now. It's almost easy. And I see everyone around me huffing and puffing, and I've been dancing in most cases more than all of them throughout the dance and I'm fine. I don't know if you learn to breathe or where you can rest or what it is? It has to be that. I'm not thinking about the choreography at all. It's second nature. I can just step on and do it. Just put the music on and let's do it. We'll see—I say that today, but I haven't done it in awhile.

Do you do a lot of cardio work outside of the studio?
I bike a lot. And just doing the rep—you build such stamina in the work, when you're in all three dances all the time.

Which you are.
A lot. Less so lately, and I don't know if that's purposeful on their part—if they're saying, "We want longevity. We don't need him in all three dances." A lot of the roles I have are: Walk on and look pretty, do a solo, an adagio and then walk off and then come back on and jump around. It's nicely well-paced. But I like when I have to work. I tell Paul all the time: "Keep me dancing as much as possible. I love it."

You haven't been injured in awhile, right?
Not lately. Only one time did I take a little break.

With your shoulder injury?
Yes. That's not too bad. You get the little things here and there but nothing major.

You joined Taylor 2 in 1996. How did that happen?
There was an audition for the main company, and they were looking for two men. I stayed with Annmaria who was living with [Taylor alumnus] Karla Wolfangle at the time. Most of it's a blur. There was so much material being thrown out. I remember Tom Patrick and Patrick Corbin being there and teaching tons of rep—things from Offenbach [Overtures] and Last Look and Arden Court. They kept whittling down and down and down. I got a callback. We must have gotten down to six people and the final thing we did was Last Look. Joao was there. I blew it. I think we were going two at a time, and I just had one of those forgot-the-choreography moments—I didn't just stand there...I kept trying to move around, but it went really badly. [Laughs] Of course, I wasn't hired. Paul hired Ted Thomas and Terry Pexton. But the dancers were so incredibly supportive afterward. They all came over and introduced themselves and said, "Please keep taking class." Andy LeBeau was so sweet and generous and Joo said something like, "You blew it. They wanted you before that." I got a call from Linda Hodes a couple of days later saying that a couple of dancers had decided to leave Taylor 2 after the audition and did I want to come and dance? Before that, I was planning to get headshots. I was going to go Broadway because Taylor was the only thing I wanted to do.

Yes. It was that or Broadway.

That's so humiliating that you blew Last Look.
I know! The one dance that you love so much...I think I was overwhelmed at that point. I was 21. I was young and the people around me had audition experience; I really hadn't. I'd graduated from college two weeks before that.

What was it like working with Linda Hodes?
I adore her. She was so fun to tour with. Shopping around the world with Linda Hodes...she's a great shopper. She can shop endlessly. And lots of stops at Denny's and other gross restaurants in all those crappy towns. The places we went to were so adventurous: five weeks in India, three weeks in Alaska. We went on such incredible, crazy tours those first two years.

Is a part of you happy that you didn't get into the company right away?
I think it's exactly how it should have been. Had I come right into the company, one, I wouldn't have danced nearly as much as I was dancing in Taylor 2. I also wouldn't have experienced the breadth of rep. I think I would have been in the teeny-tiny background roles. Maybe not for long, but I had an opportunity to immerse myself in the rep without Paul hovering—and I don't want to say that in a bad way because I don't mean it's awful when he's in the room—but it's difficult and can be stressful when you're young. To have that time, especially with someone like Linda, who was so easy and hands off—she just let you do your thing. Kind of like the same way [rehearsal director] Bettie [de Jong] is. She let's you find your way. And then I didn't have to audition again for the company. Two years later, Paul called me at home and said there was a spot open in the company and did I want it? [Laughs] It was June 10. The same day I started at Taylor 2, two years before.

What dances were you in early-on?
I wasn't in Oh, You Kid!, which was the first dance he made when I joined, but he made me come in the studio while he was making it. Lisa Viola wasn't in the first section of that dance either, and he wanted us in the room learning it on the side. I don't know if he just wanted me in the room to see how things worked? After that, he made Cascade, which was the first dance I was in.

What was that process like?
I remember not being in the studio very much creating with Paul. I feel he was working a lot with Andrew [Asnes] and Patrick [Corbin], and they would teach us the material, and then he would come in and manipulate it. It wasn't what I expected. I thought it would be a little more hands-on—not that there weren't sections of the dance where we were all in there and he was constructing. I didn't do very much in the dance, but I loved it. And then he made Arabesque, and that was the first time he made something for me. Again, he made me come in the studio while he was making the solo for Silvia [Nevjinsky]. He wanted me in the studio while he was creating on her; I think he had ideas that he would repeat some of her movement with me later in the dance, but again I felt like he just wanted me in the studio, which made me feel great. He did it with Promethean Fire when he made the duet with Patrick.

And he ended up choreographing part of it on you because Patrick got sick. Does Paul have a particular way of working or is it different every time?
Different every time. And I never know what he's going to come up with next. He tells me all the time, "I'm trying to think of something that will challenge you, something different than you've done before." Hence the antlers, hence the old man not moving, hence the Walt Whitman—he's constantly coming up with something new for me. It's amazing to have someone like Paul Taylor thinking about what they're going to make for you. That's crazy.

Does he have material in his head or is he looking at you?
Depends. With Banquet of Vultures, he had movement. He choreographed every shape. The transitions are me, I think, and all the shapes and movement are him. He was so specific. He knew exactly what he wanted when he came in to do that dance. And that's the first dance he made after my shoulder injury. That experience was one of the most special; there was a definite dialogue and such a strong idea that he had. Developing that character together was fun. The only thing he ever told me was that it was a general figure, a leader gone a little berserk. And that was all. Nothing more. I didn't have a glimpse into what he was thinking until I saw a sketch for the costume—I saw the red tie and went, Wait a minute—it's not what I thought. I thought it was going to be fatigues and a military-looking suit. I didn't realize he meant a "suit" and a red tie. And then I heard him speak at the Kennedy Center where he flat-out said, "It's George Bush." He never told me that. Was he saying that for the audience or was it really in the back of his mind? I think it was. I think that image of him on television with that red tie really struck something in him: the falseness of it, the puppet-like person.

You're so good at dancing scary.
I love scary. I don't know if it's because it goes against the norm. It's fun to go there and I love the characters. The darker characters can just sometimes be more rich to dive into and get lost in. As a kid I was obsessed with Stephen King novels, so it doesn't surprise me that I have that imagination that goes to those twisted, evil characters. I think I read every single one of his books at 13, 14, 15. Because I wasn't out playing sports, I was in my room reading—and those books are twisted.

Are there any dark roles that you're doing this season?
Big Bertha fell into my lap. I wonder if I would have been cast if it weren't for House of Joy—I'm the only guy who's not in that. [The dances are separated by a pause.] I've always liked Big Bertha. [It explores themes of child abuse and incest.] It's very macabre. I love the datedness of it, and I love watching Bettie work on it. She gets so into it: You see her reliving emotions. Amy [Young] is Big Bertha and Michelle [Fleet] is playing the mother and Eran [Bugge] is the young daughter. I'm still not sure how I'm going to play the role [of the father]. I won't really know until the first performance. [Taylor alumnus] Carolyn Adams worked with us last week, and I feel like she gave good information. I think she was seeing the actions happening and then the thought, and she was saying, "As much as you can make the thought happen before the action," which of course is obvious but sometimes it's good to be reminded. You have to have the thought before the action in that dance. What's driving it, what's making you do these things?

What is the last thing Paul did that surprised you?
Gossamer Gallants
was a little bit surprising. Definitely the two De Sueos [(Of Dreams)] dances were very strange, and we never knew what was going to happen. Every twist and turn was surprising. I mean when he came in and said, "You're going to have antlers and watch this video of a Mexican folkloric deer dance..." What? [Laughs] I loved doing that. I don't know how the whole context of the dance read, but that duet with Laura [Halzack]—we loved doing that. Lines of Loss was a major surprise. And there was an audience in the room for some reason when he was making that solo on me; it made it slightly uncomfortable because of what he was asking me to do, which was nothing—to stand there and shake and be feeble, and that's not easy to do as a dancer. You're totally exposed.

Would you talk about the new dances you're in?
The Uncommitted is a story or an idea that he's visited multiple times in dances like Eventide and Lines of Loss. I think what makes this one different is the starkness of it—at least as a dancer—and it's so simple and cyclical. There's something very sad about the dance. You want it to be hopeful and it's not. It's like Eventide. You want a happy ending, and he doesn't give you that. And the music is so beautiful. He's not used [composer] Arvo Prt before—and yes, everybody keeps using his music in dances—but I feel that the way Paul used it is special. And I love that he gives the audience an opportunity to see us one by one [The dance begins with solos]. It's rare, and you see how the different emotions within each solo change the shapes. I love dancing with Laura. It's so easy. We have such a good time coming up with lift ideas that maybe will be different than something that Paul might ask us for. He'll let you do that, or he'll manipulate it and change it to something that he wants.

Laura is interesting: Her personality isn't what I thought it would be. You think she's one way...
And she's not.

No. She's a little more like Annmaria! In the best sense, she's a little bit wackadoodle.
I'm sure that's something I love about her. She's a fun girl—you see her, and she's so poised and regal and that's so not her; I love that balance. "I came to work today and I don't have anything to dance in." She's that kind of person.

What about Gossamer Gallants, which showcases the dancers as insects?
The music is so grand and so fun to move to.

And you're moving fast.
Constantly. It was so nice to come into that. We were doing a lot of dances, including The Uncommitted, that were so quiet. How many more slow, sad adagios can I do? And I love them. But to step in there that first day with Gossamer and to hear that music—as soon as [Paul] pressed play, I felt like, Oh this is going to be fast. In directing two dancers, he would say, "You're going to go this way and around here" and he'd set the second person and say, "Okay, go." And we'd say, "Paul, you didn't tell us where to go" and he'd say, "Well, just fill in the space around them." So we were just filling in anywhere we would go and trying to remember where we had run all these crazy patterns. Then he would adjust them, but it was insane. We were exhausted. For days, making that first section, the men walked out wiped out. The squatting, the running. I felt alive after working on that dance. It really brightened us, because we'd been doing so much somber work.

How did he come up with that jabbing gesture that the men do?
It progressed. At first it was palms facing each other—a shaking thing. And then he flipped them over and then he wanted our heads down because he said we were going to have eyeballs [on our heads], and he wanted them to look like they were moving forward—it is quite difficult to run those patterns if you can't see where you're going. [Laughs] And then he wanted us to pull our chins back and smile and look really happy. With your heads down, you can't see where you're going, you're trying to smile and to get your heads to do that repetitive hooking motion and then he finally added an upper back contraction, so he wanted the hands up closer to the eyes. It evolved.

That's what I'm getting at—it is so specific.
He was very specific. With gestures and the timing of a gesture he's very specific about. In general. Watching him work on a dance like House of Joy was amazing. He is the master of the gesture. You're schooled in how to make a gesture read and how to leave space around it. He's so particular. He'll make the most minute adjustment, and it completely changes the way the gesture reads. He's so deliberate and exacting with the way it should look and the timing in which it happens.

Is he happier making a dark dance?
No. I feel it's been both. I think he's generally happy when he's creating, no matter what he's making. And there are definite times when there are a lot of new people in an old dance, and he seems just as alive and alert and excited as when he's making something new. But as far as type of dance affecting [his mood]? Not that I've noticed. There's a difference in his demeanor: he's a little more quiet making something like Beloved and a little more vocal and energetic doing something like Gossamer.

What do you think of House of Joy, which is a pantomime set in a brothel?
I think it's incredible how he tells a story so fast. It's only eight minutes long or something. I like it. I'm curious to see how it will come together with the costumes and the set. I'm glad that they decided to put it with Big Bertha because it'll make a nice dark act. I would have done them in a different order. Big Bertha is first, then House of Joy. I think I would have switched them, but he must have thought about it. Or maybe it's for a technical reason.

Is it difficult to play with rhythm or timing when you're dancing to taped music?
It's definitely more fun to do it when it's live because it's unexpected. But you can always find room, or I'll hear something different, or the mood I'm in will affect how I'm hearing the music, so I'll play with the phrasing. It could be any combination of things.

Do you think about how you're going to dance something beforehand?
Not usually—and maybe that's how it can have that sense of play: I'm trying not to plan. You know the music so well, and because it's canned, you have that safety—you know exactly where it's going to start and end, and you can play in the middle, especially if you're by yourself. I think of the solo in Brandenburgs: I can do anything I want as long as I start when the first note goes and finish when the last one happens. I'm free to play within that structure, and I feel the freedom not only because Paul allows it, but because when I watch footage of Chris Gillis, who created the part, it's different every single time. That's one of the reasons why it's so easy to stay [with the company], why I have not left. If it was cookie-cutter—"This is the way that this step falls on this count every time, and this is the emotion to feel"—I would have been gone years ago. When I joined, I said, "I'll stay for ten years and then I'll go." And then at ten, I thought, I'm not ready to go yet. There's so much I want to do. I don't think I'm done yet.

How did Annmaria's retirement affect you?
I think the buildup to it—I was trying to be so mentally and emotionally supportive to her, that I don't think I even felt anything. I mean I definitely did during that last Promethean [Fire] up at Great Barrington. There's definitely a part of me that knows we'll work together again, that it's not done. It can't be. It's just not possible. At one of the first performances without her this past fall, we were warming up onstage and it was palpable that her energy wasn't there. I immediately called her or sent her an e-mail or something saying, "This just feels wrong. Where are you?" So it's definitely been an adjustment for me. I miss her energy here. I miss her dancing. I miss watching her dance so much. There's no one like her. People have elements of her essence, but not that whole package. In dancing the same parts with one person and dancing with her, it's just so different. Promethean with Lisa [Viola] was amazing—the woman could pick herself up. I didn't even have to be there half the time. Then to dance with Annmaria, who was a ball of passion, and her emotion was so different. I love that. It's like she breathed a different life into the dances for me.

How does it feel to be the senior male?
I don't feel it. When I was a junior member, the senior members felt like senior members. I don't know why. There was an authority about them and I felt like I had to listen to every word they said. But I don't feel like that.

Who was it? Patrick Corbin?
Yes. And Andrew Asnes, Tom Patrick. Those people. I loved and admired them—it might have been from before I was in the company, that there was a level of idolization. When they were talking to me, I felt I had to pay attention to what they're saying. Andrew Asnes could be a little tough with his criticism, but I appreciated that. I'm not like that. I can't be that. [Laughs] I don't feel a hierarchy now.

What motivates you to keep dancing here?
First and foremost, it's how much I love the work. Not only loving the quality of the work, knowing that it is quality work, but loving the way the work feels. When I go and see other dance, I may like it, but I don't have a kinesthetic response to it the way I had when I used to watch Taylor. And then to do it, and to have it feel even better than that kinesthetic response—I don't want to do anything else. I don't want to dance anybody else's work. I love doing outside work, but nothing satisfies me like Paul's work. I hope there are other things that will satisfy me as much as Paul.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at the David H. Koch Theater through Apr 1.

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