The Ensemble review: A star is born

Laura Beckel Thoreson is astounding in an 18th-century opera

by TERRY ROSS

From the 17th to the 20th century, composers of no small reputation have felt compelled to tell the story of the ur-musician Orpheus, who took his lyre down to Hades to rescue his beloved Eurydice from her premature death. Such illustrious composers as Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Matthew Locke, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Josef Haydn, Jacques Offenbach, Claude Debussy, and Darius Milhaud, as well as scores of others, have all had a crack at the timeless story.

The Ensemble performed a concert version of Gluck’s operatic retelling of the Orpheus myth.

In his impressive 1762 azione teatrale called Orfeo ed Euridice, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) like others before and after him, chose to give the tale a happy ending: despite his disobedience Orfeo is rewarded by Amore (one of the three characters in this drama), with the resuscitation of Eurydice, and they all live (presumably) happily ever after.

But it’s all in how you get there. At The Ensemble’s March 19 concert at the Old Church, getting there was a continuous pleasure — and a revelation. This was mostly thanks to the talents of Laura Beckel Thoreson, the Vancouver WA mezzo-soprano who sang the central role of Orfeo.

Emotional Drama

Gluck composed no fewer than 49 operas, a dozen or so of which survive as fragments and three dozen as full scores. Despite this copious output, not many are performed today — an occasional Iphigénia en Aulide (1774) or Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) from time to time, but that’s it. Which is why Patrick McDonough is to be congratulated for his revival, in concert form, of Gluck’s Orfeo. Heavy on recitative and relatively low on memorable arias, it possesses nevertheless a “can’t lose” story.

Here, Gluck offered one of his first examples of the sort of reforms he thought opera should make: away from the excessive theatrics of the castrati who dominated the stage in Italy, Germany, and England, and toward a more attentive focus on the emotional drama, rather than the performers’ excesses. In Gluck’s original Vienna production, the part of Orfeo was taken by a celebrated alto castrato, a male who had been surgically altered to preserve his “female” voice. Later, in France, Gluck rearranged his opera to feature a female mezzo-soprano, and the role has subsequently been sung by tenors, countertenors, and even baritones, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau an illustrious example.

Aside from Orfeo’s singing, and that of his co-stars Euridice (here portrayed by soprano Jessica Beebe, from Philadelphia) and Amore (local soprano Arwen Myers), Gluck’s opera originally included a great deal of baroque dance, omitted in this concert version. Ms. Thoreson was therefore at center stage literally throughout the performance. And she seized the opportunity.

Laura Beckel Thoreson.

To hear Ms. Thoreson, all other versions fall aside. Her rich voice, which seems to have no breaks in it anywhere from her soprano tones at the top to her low tenor notes at the bottom, seems expressly suited to the part of the love-lorn Orfeo. Whether in aria’s solo flights or in recitative’s declamations, she shows a voice to die for.

Even in this unstaged version, she “acted” her part very convincingly, from Orfeo’s misery at losing Euridice, to his joy at getting her back, to his suicidal anguish when she dies again, and finally to his unalloyed joy when Amore returns her once more. It’s not just the size of her voice that impresses, it’s the combination of a large, wonderful instrument with excellent taste that sets her apart. I don’t think there has been as outstanding a local mezzo since the heady days of Christine Meadows, who did a turn with Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera more than twenty years ago.

A chorus of commentators added depth and color to the proceedings. These admirable singers, one-on-a-part, were soprano Catherine van der Salm, alto Sue Hale, tenor Nicholas Ertsgaard, and bass David Stutz. A small instrumental ensemble accompanied throughout: two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord, oboe, bassoon, and harp. The Ensemble’s founder, McDonough, conducted with aplomb.

But the night belonged to Laura Beckel Thoreson. She spends a fair amount of time, when she’s not dashing off to Eugene or Indianapolis or Georgia or Utah to perform in operas, singing in ensembles in Portland, usually one-on-a-part affairs, as was the case in The Ensemble’s previous concert. That she indulges in this sort of choral singing is a blessing for local groups but a glaring misuse of her abilities. As she showed at the Old Church, Laura Beckel Thoreson is a headliner, a star.

Recommended recordings

• Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano, Freiberger Barockorchester, Rias Kammerchor, René Jacobs conducting (Harmonia Mundi HMY2921742/43), 2014.

• Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner conducting (Decca 4783425), 1991.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon opera and vocal music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Kneebody and Misteriosos: Updating the tradition

PDX Jazz Festival bands bring classic jazz approaches into the 21st century

by PATRICK McCULLEY

At the beginning of Kneebody’s February 18 PDX Jazz Festival concert, only four of the five bandmates walked out on stage at Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Saxophonist Ben Wendel announced, to the amusement of everyone, that their bassist had had to go play a gig with “some guy named John Legend.” Their solution to this challenge left drummer Nate Wood with the unenviable task of playing the bass and drums simultaneously. It was really anyone’s guess as to how this would turn out.

I’ve been listening to Kneebody since 2005, ever since that fateful day my college jazz combo instructor spent the last 15 minutes of class exposing us to new music. With its synthesized sounds, funky percussion, and electronically altered horns, sounded unlike many jazz ensembles I’d ever listened to.

Despite performing on a bleak February afternoon, the band delivered music that was dark sometimes, but never dreary, with a composite of acoustic, electric, and synthesized sounds that encroach on emotional boundaries that most jazz (or music) doesn’t often get to. The quintet — keyboardist Adam Benjamin, trumpeter Shane Endsley, electric bassist Kaveh Rastegar (kind of, see the following paragraph), saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood — opened with the first track from their new album Anti-Hero, For the Fallen. Benjamin’s dark tapestry of synthesized keyboard and fender rhodes built a foundation for horn players to weave provocative melodies and Wood to lay down driving rhythmic grooves. It soon became apparent that Wood had no problem playing drums and bass at the same time.

Wood pulled double duty with Kneebody at PDX Jazz Festival. Mark Sheldon.

Any more skepticism was soon laid to rest during their performance of Drum Battle. Written for a recent collaboration with electronic musician Daedalus, it started out light and swinging, only to transition abruptly into a complicated series of funky rhythmic patterns in 5/4, 12/8, and ¾. It was somewhere during Wood’s insane drum solo, a solo that increased in speed so much that the horn players could barely keep up when the melody re-entered, that I was stunned to realize that he was still playing the bass with just his left hand.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Spring Break dancing

Just because school's out doesn't mean the dancers aren't dancing

It’s spring break here in Portland, and I am living vicariously through all of you with a margarita in hand who have spent the week on a soft, warm, tropical beach somewhere. Yes, it’s finally happened: I have Rain Fatigue. We had one sunny day on Monday, and I was bouncing around like a puppy.

But, all of this relaxing and vacationing does not mean that Portland dancers are on a break too, by no means, because, you know, dancers never rest. Right? Well sometimes they do, but not this week, rain fatigue or not.

Skinner/Kirk’s Burn It Backwards repeats for a second weekend. Martha Ullman West reviewed for ArtsWatch (“What the company is dancing about this year is the many ways men relate to each other, or fail to, and also about American social and political norms”) and I previewed for the Oregonian, and Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus goes inside the body continues as well.

In Conversation—photography and performance with dance artist Tracy Broyles along with musicians Adrian Hutapea and Lisa De Grace plays one night only at Blue Sky Gallery, and “Duality: Dance Ballet of India” by bharatnatyam choreographer Jayanthi Raman has a one-night stand as well.

On Saturday I will be hosting a free, informal showing of choreography by three Portland choreographers—Jana Zahler, WolfBird Dance (a Portland dance company directed by Selina Dipronio and Raven Jones) and myself. I have remounted my The Kitchen Sink, which debuted in November, with two new dancers, and we are headed to the Bay Area next week to perform in the Dance Up Close/East Bay festival, alongside Bay Area choreographer Abigail Hosein’s (ahdanco) and Tanya Chianese (ka.nei.see|collective). If you are interested in seeing dance in all of its developmental stages, this is the evening for you.

Closing out the weekend will be Shen Yun, a large scale dance production created in response to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its destruction of ancient Chinese culture billed as “5000 years of chinese music and dance in one night.” The dancing, colors, costumes, lighting and virtual transport to another era are a perfect way to welcome spring.

Performances happening this week

Skinner/Kirk. Photo by Christopher Peddecord

Burn It Backwards
Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble
Presented by BodyVox
March 30-April1
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave
Add Martha review
Burn It Backwards is a new work from BodyVox Dance company founders Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk that combines five male dancers—Kirk, Skinner, James Healey, Chase Hamilton and Brent Luebbert, with the music of the late Portland singer, songwriter and musician Elliott Smith.

The work explores relationships: the bodies relationship to itself; to other dancers’ bodies; to the space around the body; and to the world at large. And it also looks into such concepts as ostracism and optimism through patterning, geometric shapes and physicality.

Photo courtesy of Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus.

Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus goes inside the body
Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus
March 31-April 1
Echo Theater, 1515 SE 37th Ave
Sir Cupcake, a gender-bending circus performer, is stranded in the future and his magic time-traveling pocket-watch had been sabotaged. His internal organs have been all mixed up and his heart has gone missing. The Queer Circus must travel inside Sir Cupcake’s body and put his organs back together and find his missing heart, in this performance/adventure featuring rope artist Kiebpoli “Black Acrobat” Calnek, from San Francisco, DieAna Dae and Box of Clowns, contortion by Meg Russell, and duo acrobatics by Ari and Ben, and more!

Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus celebrates queer and trans identities with storytelling and performances by queer and transgender people and their allies. The Saturday March 25 performance will be ASL interpreted and Audio Described (headsets provided). Echo Theater is wheelchair accessible and has a gender neutral bathroom.

The Kitchen Sink  by Jamuna Chiarini. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

Informal showing of new work
Jamuna Chiarini, Jana Zahler and WolfBird Dance
6 pm April 1
Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave

See above.

“Velvet” by Lauren Semivan at Blue Sky Gallery.

In Conversation- photography and performance
7 pm April 1
Blue Sky /Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts. 122 NW 8th Ave
In response and reflection to Lauren Semivan’s current photography exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland dance artist Tracy Broyles, musician Adrian Hutapea and musician Lisa De Grace will come together and recreate live, images and sensations from the photographs.

The 20-minute performance will be repeated six times over the course of 90 minutes, and the audience is invited to come and go as they like.

Duality: Dance Ballet of India
Presented by Rasika, Jayanthi Raman
4 pm April 1
Portland bharatnatyam choreographer Jayanthi Raman tells the story of Lalitha Ram, a young girl who moves from South India to Portland, Oregon, and finds herself straddling dual cultures. The performance will be supported by a visiting dancers from India and with the music of maestro U. Rajesh, featuring the voice of Bollywood singer Hariharan and percussionists Selvaganesh and S.V. Ramani.

Shen Yun
Presented by Oregon Falun Dafa Association
April 4-5
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay Street
Shen Yun, or “the beauty of divine beings dancing,” is a production created in response to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its destruction of ancient Chinese culture. Shen Yun was created in 2006 by a group of artists and Falun Dafa practitioners in New York City as a means to revive Chinese culture through dance, music and storytelling. Because Shen Yun does not abide by the Chinese Communist Party rules, the company has been harassed from its inception. Documentation of those experiences by the company are shared on their website under the heading “Challenges we face.”

Performances next week

April
April 6, Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, Eric Nordstrom
April 6-8, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Presented by White Bird
April 7-29, Butoh College Performance Series, Hosted by Water in the Desert
April 8-9, A Festival of Dance, NW Dance Theatre, choreography by Laura Haney, Maria Tucker, Leonid Shagalov, M’liss Stephenson and Erin Zintek.
April 8-9, The Snow Queen, Eugene Ballet Company
April 9, Spiral-a dance film by Amit Zinman, Portland Underground Film Festival
April 10, Noontime Showcase OBT2, Presented by Portland’5

Upcoming Performances

April 15, Episode III, dance film by Jin Camou and Julia Calabrese
April 15, Synesthesia, BodyVox, TEDx Portland
April 15, Bridge the Gap, Presented by Sepiatonic
April 13-22, Terra, Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 14-16, New work by Jin Camou, Performance Works NW Alembic Co-Production
April 21-29, X-Posed, Polaris Dance Theatre
April 22-23, Annual School Performance, The School of Oregon Ballet Theatre, choreography by George Balanchine, Nicolo Fonte, Alison Roper and Anthony Jones
April 25-26, Che Malambo, Presented by White Bird
April 27-29, Contact Dance Film Festival, Presented by BodyVox and NW Film Center
April 28-29, Appalachian Spring Break, Scotty Heron and Brendan Connelly, Presented by Performance Works NW / Linda Austin Dance
May
May 4-7, Taka Yamamoto, Produced by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
May 5, Spring Dance Concert, The Reed College Dance Department
May 5-7, In Close Proximity, The Tempos Contemporary Circus
May 5-7, Inclusive Arts Vibe Annual Performance, Disability Arts and Culture Project
May 10, Martha Graham Dance Company, Presented by White Bird
May 26-28, N.E.W. Residency performance, Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf, and Michael Galen
May 26 – 27, Spring Concert – Tribute to the Ballet Russes, Featuring work by Michel Fokine, Tom Gold, George Balanchine, and Lane Hunter, The Portland Ballet
June
June 2-4, Interum Echos, PDX Contemporary Ballet
June 8-10, Summer Splendors, NW Dance Project
July
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
August
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration

ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers

The young Oregon-born critic was dismissive. The program contained only music by dead European composers, and the performance, he wrote in his review, “was especially remarkable in that it was so out of tune, and set something of a record in that its well-trained constituents . . . played wrong notes in a simple piece….”

The conductor complained to the young reviewer. His expectations were too high, he said, for a struggling orchestra whose funding allowed for minimal rehearsal time. If you think you can do better, do it.

The young critic, who was also a composer, accepted the challenge. He programmed a concert by the same group he’d criticized the following season, including a work by a neglected and revolutionary American composer, Charles Ives, another work by one of the critic’s own neglected American contemporaries, and a new work the critic had composed himself. As we’ll see below, the concert that followed, on  April 5, 1946, became a milestone in American music.

This happened seven decades ago. The young critic-composer, Lou Harrison, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, had chided the New York Little Symphony for its December 1944 performance, and that ensemble’s director, Joseph Barone, invited Harrison to program a subsequent concert.

Bliss (l) and Ewer found common ground.

But something similar is also happening right here in Portland, Harrison’s birthplace, this Wednesday, March 29, when 45th Parallel Ensemble performs music by 20th century American composers (including Ives) and three 21st century Oregons — including the young Oregon ArtsWatch composer-writer whose negative assessment of one of the ensemble’s 2015 shows led them to challenge him to do better. We’ll find out Wednesday night whether he met the challenge. But for those who care about the future of classical music, the story that led to the concert is just as promising.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Play it, Sam

On the 88th day the pianos will play, all over town. Plus: The Japanese Garden reopens, Brett Campbell's music tips, new theater & dance

Wednesday, in case you haven’t been counting, will be the 88th day of 2017.

A piano, as you probably know, has 88 keys.

And that seems like an excellent excuse to throw a big piano party, which is exactly what Portland Piano International is doing with its minimalistically named Piano Day. Portland’s Piano Day, PPI declares, is the first in the United States. The celebration first struck a chord in Germany two years ago when pianist Nils Frahm proclaimed March 29 as Piano Day, and it’s crescendoed rapidly to Japan, Slovenia, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, France, and elsewhere.

Dooley Wilson at the keyboard, playing “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 Warner Bros. movie “Casablanca.”

So what’s happening? Piano playing. Lots of it, by lots of pianists (no, not Francis Scott Key or Alicia Keys), in lots of styles, from noon to 10 p.m. in four locations: Portland City Hall downtown, All Classical Portland radio headquarters in the Portland Opera building at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge, Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland, and TriMet’s Oregon Zoo MAX Station. Listening’s free, but the pianists are also taking donations for PPI and educational programs, and a little payback is a good thing. Play it, Sam.

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Trio con Brio Copenhagen review: Deeply felt music 

Danish chamber music ensemble performs music born of emotional upheaval

by TERRY ROSS

When he wrote his last trio, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) is thought by some to have already begun suffering from the incurable mental illness that ended his life prematurely at age 46.

But as performed by Trio con Brio Copenhagen last week to open their Friends of Chamber Music concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 110, seemed not merely sane but coherent. Any evidence of the composer’s condition  may appear in the different treatment of the instruments in its four movements. In the first movement Bewegt, doch nicht zu rasch (“Agitated, but not too fast”), the violin, cello, and piano each seem to be playing to themselves, rather than combining in a group conversation. In the second movement Ziemlich langsam (“Rather slowly”), the stringed instruments, played by the Korean sisters Soo-Jin Hong (violin) and Soo-Kyung Hong (cello), play to and for each other, with mere support from the piano, except at the end, when pianist Jens Elvekjaer states the lovely main theme.

Trio con Brio Copenhagen performed at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Schumann’s wife Clara admired the third-movement Scherzo, marked Rasch (“fast”), above the other three. At only four minutes, it is the shortest of the three and ends in even more agitation than the first. The final movement, Kraftig, mit Humor (“Powerfully, with humor”) is the least appealing of the four, but in its quotations from the three preceding, it makes for a plausible conclusion.

The trio played Schumann’s piece with restraint when the music called for it and with genuine vigor in the fast passages. Cellist Soo-Kyung seemed to be the focus of the other two most of the time, and she produced the most gorgeous sounds on her Grancino cello.

The first half also featured  the Portland premiere of Jan Sandström’s Four Pieces for Piano Trio, written in 2012 for this ensemble. Sandström, who was born in 1954, is by all accounts well represented on Scandinavian concert stages. Amongst his considerable oeuvre, the piece most consistently repeated is his Motorbike Concerto (Trombone Concerto No. 1), composed in 1991.

Composer Jan Sandström.

Sandström’s Four Pieces (three minutes each for the first three, six for the fourth) are not readily distinguishable from one another. The musical language in all four is identifiably contemporary but not atonal, a little like late Stravinsky crossed with Arvo Pärt. In a short introduction, pianist Elvekjaer described the composer as a “manipulative romantic.” But Sandström seems not to have decided what he wanted to pursue — staccato passages, cantabile moments, or concerted statements. The music in all four movements jumped from one sort of thing to another without ever developing any of the ideas introduced.

Then, after the intermission,  the high point of the concert in both the quality of the music and the playing of it. When Antonin Dvorak began his Op. 65 Trio early in 1883, the memory of his mother’s death six weeks earlier was still fresh and painful. He responded with his most emotional music to date, although he already had six symphonies, eleven string quartets, and many other chamber works behind him. But this trio proved a sort of turning point in Dvorak’s effort to become a staple of the concert repertoire in Europe. His most fertile and mature period followed, the years of the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, the Slavonic Dances, and the final three string quartets, as well as a great deal of program music.

Amidst the stormy intensity of the first-movement Allegro ma non troppo, Dvorak finds space to introduce two rhapsodic duets for piano and cello. These were lovingly caressed by Mr. Elvekjaer and Ms. Soo-Kyung, who in “real life” met in the formation of the Trio con Brio and later married. In the second-movement Allegretto grazioso the pianist takes center stage, playing the melody at the beginning and end of the six-minute movement.

The third movement, marked Poco adagio (“a little slow”), is the heart of the piece, a beautiful rendition of the both the composer’s sorrow and fond memories concerning his mother. Violinist Soo-jin took the melody late in this movement, and her playing (on her lovely Guarneri instrument) was heart-wrenching. The fourth-movement Finale Allegro con brio returns to the intensity of the questing, agitated first, with a Slavic hint and an elegant waltz passage, the whole thing ending in an explosion of energy. The Trio con Brio were all over it, raising their six hands in triumph at the rousing finish.

As an added treat, they returned, after a couple of standing ovations, to play an encore: the lovely slow third movement of Dvorak’s G-minor Trio of 1876. You could have heard a hummingbird chirp at the end, before the audience exploded again in sustained applause.

Recommended recordings

Schumann Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 110
• Isabelle Faust, violin; Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello; Alexander Melnikov, piano (Harmonia Mundi HMC902196), 2015.
• Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67175), 1999.

Jan Sandström
Motorbike Concerto (Trombone Concerto No. 1), Christian Lindberg, trombone, with Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam conducting (BIS CD 538), 1991.

Dvorak Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65
Dvorak: Piano Trios Nos. 3 & 4, Smetana Trio (Supraphon SU38722), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

Over the past twenty years, give or take, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, founders of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, have developed what you might call an autobiographical movement vocabulary: a braiding-together of ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles that reflect their performing careers in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project. At OBT they danced in work by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, and there is a lot of her particular branch of modernism in their choreography.

I saw all that and more in Burn It Backwards, their new evening-length work, which opened Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, performed to music by Elliott Smith, played live—extremely live!—by Bill Athens, Galen Clark, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis. Smith, who died in 2003 at a very young 34, lived most of his short life in Portland, and according to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look him up) was strongly influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of his own songwriting, Smith said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of language, I think about it in terms of shapes.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Skinner and Kirk took the title of their piece from a line in Smith’s Sweet Adeline, one of the thirteen songs arranged by Clark specifically for these performances. They chose it, they say in a program note, “because it speaks of forming a new history, both erasing and creating.” That’s a pretty good description of the choreographic process, or the creative process generally, but what Skinner and Kirk actually put on stage was a finished, polished series of dances for themselves and three other men, Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert, all of them accomplished, well-schooled dancers.

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