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Ruth Way

The vital relationship between research and teaching to enhance creative practice and the environment for arts education.

Way, Ruth: The vital relationship between research and teaching to enhance creative practice and the environment for arts education, 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

1. Abstract

Key Ideas: Practice as research and part of an ongoing process; the dynamic relationship between research and teaching to sustain depth in artistic practice in arts education; establishing the ‘thinking body’ through embodied concepts in the delivery of theory and practice; application of theories of Samuel Beckett’s work to provide an intersemiotic analysis of dance theatre; making innovative dance theatre film using new digital technologies.

This paper discusses the need to build a meaningful relationship between theory and practice to nurture and not hinder the creative act. It will discuss training and skills application in the context of performer training and the understanding of the body in performance. It proposes that research activities form part of an ongoing commitment to a practice and its continual development to enhance creativity in arts education. The paper endeavours to expose this relationship and its importance through discussion of teaching methodologies and analysis of practical research outcomes. Two examples are offered:

1 ‘Exploring Beckett’ Student devised dance theatre work. Lecturer Ruth Way

2 ‘Enclave’ A digital dance and visual arts film applying new digital technologies and editing techniques, work in progress. Researchers Ruth Way and Russell Frampton.

2. Introduction

I am writing this paper in response to my own reflections and concerns regarding the lack of real emphasis on the relationship between teaching and research. In the context of delivering these within an ever competitive educational market it is all too easy to forget their inherent relationship and need for interdependency. I would also stress the value and quality of this relationship therefore requires total support to sustain creativity and innovation in arts education. To expose what I feel is a vital and dynamic relationship I will be using my own teaching experience and research activities to reflect upon in order to re-awaken our positioning and alter these perceptions.

As an ‘academic practitioner’ it is my movement practice and experience of working with people that forms the very backbone of the teaching and the learning environment created for my students. What matters to me and the students I work with is the level of engagement with a practice, one, which provides a rich framework for exploration and interrogation. Within Theatre and Performance at the University of Plymouth one of my key aims is to construct a dynamic relationship between theory and practice to enable students to explore the study area physically and conceptually. To help students acquire a knowledge and understanding of the potential of a ‘body that can think and act creatively and where this praxis is learnt through the body and the engagement of the senses.

My teaching practice at the University is constantly addressing and re-enforcing these aims. It is through the investigation and exploration of this ‘thinking body’ that has formed a body of dance and movement research into educating and performer training. Through the teaching I have integrated my own physical and theoretical research to provide a depth of practice and ‘lived’ concepts as a framework for students to study and apply this thinking body. I pointedly use the word ‘lived’ because what I believe we are up against in delivering this interdependency between theory and practice is when the mind is separated from the body. As Carol Brown out in her article ‘Tall Stories’, ‘attempts to represent a theoretical concept invariably fail because they do not account for the differences between the linguistic and the corporeal.’ (Brown DTJ 16no.4: 16). It is exactly this which I am ferociously guarding against and have developed teaching strategies which nurture the learning through the body rather than students ‘acting out’ concepts and where there is no physical understanding of their decisions and actions. Through the teaching of this praxis the mind/body split ‘Cartesian Dualism’ [1] must be rejected in order that students engage with the physical and creative processes through the understanding of the symbiotic relationship between mind and body, process and product. This relationship has been the central focus in my teaching and research into dance theatre and has provided an extremely valuable framework to sustain a depth in the creative practice and support innovation.

3. Research and choreographic activity

Sustaining my own training and commitment to a practice has been vital to sustain the depth in the teaching of the choreographic and performance practice at the University. When ever possible I take the opportunity to practically research and train in issues of the body and have examined how the corporeal and linguistic elements can form a dialogue. These experiences form part of my practical research into performer training and dance theatre. On reflection if one is connected to a physical practice one is continually adding to a spatial, kinaesthetic and sensorial awareness. One could argue this is a form of practical research in itself. Again I feel it is this level of engagement, which needs constant support, and where process is valued over product. Also to acknowledge that it is often several different processes over a period of time which inform a more specific research outcome.

4. Influences and research activity

Developing a performance presence and analysis of why one performer is more watch/able than another are two key strands of investigation that form part of the students’ study and my own. My practice has been influenced by the study of martial art forms and I have applied some of the basic languages and philosophy of these to train students in theatre and performance. These disciplines train mind and body together and this symbiotic relationship is also applied to other technical training as in Contemporary dance and movement improvisation. The role of the imagination and building an awareness of the internal physical processes are key focuses. The training creates a dialogue between the mind and the body so that the communication sought is where concepts and ideas have been felt and embodied fully rather than being simply reiterated or borrowed. In terms of making movement and choreography the internal activity informs the external shape and quality of each action. I have found that in today’s social and educational climate very often students perceive skills as something to be acquired rather quickly, they see them as merely physical actions and feats to conquer rather than being able to place them in the context of an ongoing process and part of a much broader learning perspective. What is signified is the relevance of reflection on our practice and how these explorations contribute to our understanding of the body in performance. I believe this provides the student with a working context and helps them to achieve the relevance behind their study. It also brings into debate the practical and conceptual challenges that are very much present in their study of performance. So therefore it is never just an exercise, as in the context of this learning this would fall very short of the aims and objectives of the study.

In September 2001 I was a participant of Phillip Zarrilli’s workshop as part of the International Festival Workshop held at Jerwood Space, London [2]. The one-week workshop titled ‘Making the body all eyes’ introduced his intensive body/mind training in the traditional South Indian martial art, Kalaripayattu and selected yoga techniques. The title itself denotes that if the body is fully awake and looking from every part then surely than the performer must be achieving a resonance and radiance in the performance space. It will therefore be entirely watchable as the performer’s presence invites you to attend and watch. As we worked through this training Zarrilli would offer many imaginative visualisations and previous notions/pre-conceptions of time and space were challenged. I found one, particularly rewarding regarding my perception of going faster as he invited us all simply to ‘take less time’ and then our relationship with pace changed. Adding pace then did not detract from the quality of the action and the quality of the breathing was sustained throughout. This resulted in pace being managed effectively through the body. It is the relationship of the breath to the action that is key to the training to provide a total body awareness. It was particularly interesting to work with these elements of performance through a different discipline and how this training can embrace performativity. My relationship to the space around me was heightened and my understanding of making space concrete and visible deepened. What always amazes me is how much these sensations stay with my body and I find myself returning to them to discover further connections. As in many martial art forms the relationship constructed between the space below and above is a primary focus as the interplay between these two spaces creates a meaningful dialogue. As Dominic Dupuy writes in his article ‘Flying not falling’, ‘we are neither terrestrial nor celestial we are more free. We occupy the space between things’. (DTJ 16 No1:17) I would also apply this to how a plie can function but then also how a dancer plays to the edges of these polarities to accentuate a feeling in a space. It is the dancer’s ability to manage their body between these two points that is so skilful. The training built a very strong relationship with the floor, a sense of rootedness, being grounded in each action, a sense of knowing where one is coming from and where one can return. We were also asked to physically sense what we had left behind and where we were going. The past, present and future framework provided a powerful relationship between this cycle of time and added to one’s understanding of a present condition, one’s existence and the ever changing environment. In a sense it substantiates one’s existence and promoted the act of being and not pretending to be there. These are pertinent concepts when discussing how the body and language of movement constructs meaning and is received in performance. We have to consider what the body holds and here the perspective of the body writing itself and its history is now seen as a tangible concept for students to analyse and explore through improvisation.

The movement and dance practice within theatre and performance is taught from the premise that the physicality of the performer informs every action, gesture, word and relationship/connection. The body is discussed as a social, cultural and political site, and practice encourages an awareness of multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary perspectives. Another key strand of my research has been to investigate how the linguistic and corporeal elements can form a dialogue in dance/physical theatre. To do this I have been exploring and training my own voice but through the body and action. I have had no formal vocal training as such but it is through my understanding of how the whole body can work to produce sound that has supported my own development in this area. For political and personnel reasons I have tired of the silent dancer/mover but do feel this has been re-addressed by the dance community to some extent over the last five years. However in the genres of dance and physical theatre where choreographers are seeking an interplay between spoken text and movement I would infer that the training performers receive would need to facilitate this relationship and dialogue between them. Students will often perceive the speaking of text, as not being physical and therefore the quality of the vocal work is often poor. I argue against this perception strongly and my practice has sought to integrate the breathing and vocalisation with the movement training. My main vocal influences have been Meredith Monk, New York and Patricia Bardi, Amsterdam. Practical research undertaken has proved to me that this connection with the voice whether or not it is eventually used in a performance outcome provides an extremely valuable dimension physically and conceptually. The aim is not to separate them and students are encouraged to work with their breathing and use of sound created through their movement in the space. In terms of devising dance theatre students are encouraged to move between voice and movement, but the awareness of the moving body inhabiting and transforming the space must never be lost. I have found that if this bodily and spatial awareness is sustained the performer can move from one language to another, and a thread is found to connect them. When I am directing I seek to acknowledge what traces have already been mapped in the space by this I mean the invisible spatial pathways, the residue of kinetic activity and the energy in the atmosphere. In this way the past is informing the present and experience has shown me that when the performer loses this connection the tensions and polarities at play in the space and through the bodies can be disrupted or weakened.

5. Building a dynamic relationship between theory and practice and reflections on teaching practice

The first priority addressed with students is how this ‘praxis’ is approached, achieved and sustained throughout the module. A knowledge and transparency of where we are heading is key to establishing coherency and confidence for all. A detailed analysis is offered to discuss fully how the theory and practice will inform each other in our working sessions. Strategies to develop this dialogue between them are introduced and here the aims and objectives of the module and key concepts are brought to the fore.

The key components and concepts of the training are discussed; the body/mind training; the role of the imagination and use of breath to inform each action; how the interplay between pace, rhythm, dynamics and space manifest performativity and contribute to the developing meanings of a performance. There is also acknowledgement and discussion of the time it will take to work with and explore these concepts to enable them to be fully realised in the body and the performance nexus. The aim is to engage the thinking body with the written concepts to ensure students perceive these as lived/experienced ideas that can be realised through practical investigation. As students train and explore through improvisation they work with their imaginations and bodies to explore these concepts. Perceptions of time, space, rhythm, dynamics and pace are introduced as they work practically and often referred to as part of a broader performance context.

Specific articles from dance journals are selected to support the praxis, the creative practice and the performance outcome, here supporting the symbiotic relationship between process and product. Articles where choreographers/practitioners are interviewed or discussing their practice support the ‘lived concept’ as these artists are sharing insight about their work, the creative concepts that are at play and how they actually go about it. Students are encouraged to ask questions regarding their understanding and bring in points for debate. Here the emphasis is active engagement where the processes of debating, offering their own insight and perceptions play a key role in achieving the praxis. Students are given a specific chapter to read each week to prepare for the following session and in groups they are asked to comment on and contextualise their understanding and insight. They are also asked to reflect on this in the context of their own practice and use of theatrical and choreographic processes and materials. This provides them with an opportunity to reflect and evaluate their own position and perspective of crafting and shaping. They are then asked to identify how this might inform/influence their future performance work. These investigations are supported by watching examples of performance on video and students are asked to identify where in the work these issues of performance are being achieved and realised.

Improvisational and choreographic tasks with movement and or/text are set up in response to the conceptual challenges and thematic strands present in the study. Improvisations are applied as specific investigations into a particular physical activity or proposed framework. (For example to remember a childhood place/space why does this space come to mind, what are its characteristics, how do this space impact on your movement and reasons for moving, how then are you moving in this space, is there a story to tell in the space, tell your story but retain the physical activity, rhythm and dynamics that have presented themselves. Now tell your story to an audience; maintain the movements, gestures and spatial orientations as you now perform it using the entire space). Students are asked to reflect upon these processes and note down what has been gained from each improvisational task and to identify key ideas, which could be used for choreographic development. I refer to these as ‘products for development’. The performance outcome is placed immediately into the context of the ‘present’ learning, as students will also perceive this as being separate and fail to make the significant links between their experiences and the practical realisation of the performance.

6. Training/skills

Regarding the movement and dance training the relevance and role of technique and skills is broadly contextualised. They are perceived as integral to the study area, they are discussed and applied in relationship to creativity and the significance of achieving definition and articulation of; the body in space; the space in the body; and the space between things. Due to working with mostly un-trained bodies I have researched training methods through my teaching and practice that I deem to be more appropriate to this range of bodies. An economy of movement is sought through developing an internal skeletal balance and building a powerful dialogue with the floor and the space above .An acknowledgement of working with these polarities practically and conceptually is emphasised throughout the learning. Phillip Zarrilli discusses the process of self-definition and states that ‘the practitioner must constantly (re)discover the self in and through the training as a process of self-definition with each repetition’. (Zarrilli 1995: 187) This principle is applied to theory and practice with the understanding that each time we re-visit an idea or movement there is the potential to deepen the study and the exploration. All of these aims are applied through the different movement and dance techniques to facilitate and support the physical and creative potential in each student.

In the movement practice students are invited to work with visual imagery to allow the imagination to play a key role in achieving the sense of length and internal space in their own bodies. This is where the interplay between the mind and the body becomes actively engaged. For I am looking for bodies to make profound and subtle changes and where this transformation can be lead by the feeling, sensing and imagining which inspires and informs the quality of each action.

7. Example of student work: Analysis and evaluation

‘Exploring Beckett’, was devised work involving level two students studying dance theatre. One of its main aims was to explore the interfaces between dance and acting. Students were asked to realise a performance generated from the theories and practice of practitioners such as Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski and choreographer Pina Bausch. A number of Beckett plays and prose were selected and one of the central debates was to question how much freedom the interpreter should have in the modern theatre. It was stressed that the aim was to work with and explore the dramaturgical issues and theories regarding Beckett and not to do Beckett per se . So why use Beckett’s plays and prose as a source for devising dance theatre one may ask? Marek Kedzierski writes in Samuel Beckett Today ‘In Beckett’s late drama, the organising principle seems to be the juxtaposition of two modes, visual and acoustic according to an elaborate pattern reminiscent of music and the visual arts rather than drama’. (Wulf 1994:152) Discussion and analysis of Beckett’s medium and the dramaturgy of his plays asked us to perceive his use of words more as a musical composition and to recognise the relationship he constructs between the word and the body. Pierre Chabert writes ‘Beckett’s aim is not, in other words, to reduce the stage to words alone, but rather to concentrate upon those words that are incarnated and pronounced by the body’. (Conner 1988: 159) He states ‘it is out of these unprepossessing raw materials that Beckett generates a dramaturgy of which the smallest detail may possess significance, thereby restoring to the stage its exceptional potential as a corporeal medium without parallel’. (Conner 1988:159). In regard to how we could form a meaningful dialogue between the choreography and the text these statements and theories were invaluable to our reading, understanding and handling of his work and suggested how we might place these concepts within the context of the genre dance theatre. Part of the exploration was to question where we could add movement and other bodies in space or indeed not. The perception of less means more [3] became highly pertinent and was consistently applied throughout the devising period and the performance outcome. Movements and gestures were stripped down to become part of the minimalist score and in the context of these explorations added to the perceptual intensity of the developing work. It can be argued of course that this work did not adhere to Beckett’s irreducibility of the body but in the context of exploring the Beckettian medium and stage I would put forward that the choreographic and non-verbal languages selected did not disrupt this corporeal medium but added to it. Attempts were made to build a synthesis between the choreography and the theatrical elements, where the body was staged through choreographic metaphors and where the words moved through and out of the body. As Louise MacNeice proposes ‘Beckett’s truth is not of a statement but of a dance’. (Reid 1968:12) We were creating a new form and one where meaning, form, text and the performers’ corporealities were woven together to seek out some of ‘Beckett’s truth. The performance outcome also experimented with live footage of the performers as part of the visual score, these projected bodies served to blend the virtual and actual dimensions with those of the performers onstage.

One of the most successful pieces was our exploration of Beckett’s’Rockaby’, this involved three dancers, the rocking chair was sited on top of a scaffolding tower and included projections of the chair rocking and another of the eyes of the main character covering the whole screen. The dancers moved as one with the rhythm of the text, and the theme of rocking informed the choreographic content and quality of the actions. It was however this quality of movement that helped the dancers establish the rhythm in the delivery of the text and create the monotony Beckett intended. The choreographic structure was not unlike a Philip Glass score with repetitive motifs, which developed with subtle changes and variations. This minimalist compositional approach seemed appropriate and in terms of crafting the text and movement did not detract from the main focuses required by the piece. By this I mean that we follow and watch this woman take a journey and we experience life as a process and never stopping. Alan Schnieder in his interview with Billy Whitelaw writes ‘ But not at the end, coming to its end. It never gets there......’. P17.(Oppenheim 1994:17) The dancers developed a journey in the space with the central character leaving the other dancers a little more each time until finally she mounts the tower and rocks in the rocking chair. The text was divided between the dancers speaking it live with other sections being recorded. The recording maintained the vocal and rhythmical qualities and achieved the seamless effect we had intended. What it did produce metaphorically was the effect that the main character was phasing in and out of consciousness but managing to go on and this was extremely powerful in light of Beckett’s intentions in the writing. As the main character rocks in her chair the other dancers maintain the rhythmical movement but the space between them is now stretched to its furthest point, the movements are also smaller as if signalling the coming closer to an end. There is a quality of acceptance in the space, that living is being born and dying.

8. Digital dance and visual arts film

As a performer and theatre maker I have always been more drawn towards the notion of Total Theatre probably because I’m more interested in the whole being of a person and to perceive that each sound, moment, detail and movement form part of a whole experience. For me the work of Pina Bausch fulfils this criteria and has been a main source of inspiration for my own work. Like Beckett she asks her audience to be vulnerable and to submit ourselves to the experience without needing logical meanings. I can apply Alec Reid’s analysis of Beckett’s work to Bausch’s, he writes: the area of experience with which Beckett is dealing is a place where reason does not operate, a province of the emotions not to be entered by intellectual analysis, but by direct, sensuous response’. (Reid 1968:30)

In the making of this film these concepts are wholly relevant to how meanings are constructed and received. The work does not follow a linear narrative but observes the aesthetic framing of liminality [4]. Susan Broadhurst in her book titled Liminal Acts describes liminal performance as an emerging genre and one which can be seen to prioritize the body, the technological and the primordial. It is used also to describe interdisciplinary and highly experimental work and in this respect I can begin to apply some of Broadhurst’s theories to assist me in the critical analysis of my own explorations moving between dance, theatre, film and visual art.

The title ‘enclave’ was chosen as a working theme and metaphor to consider the need to defend or preserve personal, social and cultural spaces and identities. In my own position I feel strongly that I have to hold onto my own sense of corporeality within a pressured society and modes of being. A room 8-foot by 12 has been constructed with a doorway at one end, the other end has been put against the projection screen to enable us to film or project on to this area. Projected images of other spaces and places are being projected into this room, sometimes on three sides. The explorations are between the relationship of the performer with these external influences and compositional elements. We are also experimenting with projecting onto different materials and the notion of blending the performer into a projected image so that you cannot distinguish one from the other.

Movement material is being created in response to these hybrid environments, and through improvisation. I have purposely not learnt sequences of movement material but prefer to use my kinaesthetic and visual memory to create a fluid vocabulary but where the main essences remain. This approach proved successful when dancing with my virtual partner as the relationship remained ambiguous but also revealed connections that were deeper and not obvious.

I am also working with a local professional actor, chosen for his quality of being in the world and attention to the particular. His presence will add to the semiotic potential in the work through the dance material, the spoken text and his relationship with the main performer. He is there to represent whole generations and the passing on of cultural knowledge. The virtual actor and imagery will also represent a landscape of memories, Anne Bogart’s perceptions here are very useful, in her book titled A Director Prepares she discusses culture as shared experience and writes 'the act of remembering connects us with the past and alters time. We are living conduits of human memory. The act of memory is a physical act and lies at the heart of theatre. If theatre were a verb it would be ‘to remember’’. (Bogart 2001:22)

The second stage of this artistic exploration will be the production and direction of the digital effects and the editing as a process to encapsulate the underlying themes and aims of the work. The final outcome will represent a truly collaborative venture between a dancer/choreographer and visual artist/film maker to create an experimental piece of hybrid work that is reaching to the edge of technical and artistic capabilities.


In this paper I have tried to expose the dynamic relationship between teaching and research to stress how vital it is to remain on a journey that continues to explore new spaces, bodies and relationships. The reflection and analysis on my own practice in teaching and research is an acknowledgement of this and also serves to connect my living processes with my dance practice.

From an artistic and teaching perspective there always has to be a sense of validity and worth attached to all experience. This is why I have structured the learning from the premise of the thinking body and the very heart of the experience is the doing and thinking through the body. The students I teach are learning to be articulate through their bodies so that they can meet the practical and conceptual challenges set before them. They are encouraged to reflect and evaluate what has been gained from a particular exercise or creative task, to ask what has been felt and what has been transformed. A working atmosphere is created where students are not running to or predetermining the outcome but rather taking and trusting the time that it takes to work deeply in the creative processes to inform a richer performance outcome. I consider it is my own level of engagement with my practical and theoretical research that enables me to provide a valuable an innovative site of discourse and the ability to sustain an artistic vulnerability, a sense of us alltaking a journey that makes it a shared and equal learning experience for everyone. I remind us all there are no quick fixes, deep knowledge takes time, patience and the ability to trust a process. I hold onto these qualities to ensure my own research and creativity can flourish and so that I can continue to nurture the teaching environment. To encourage new thinking I also believe that research should not always be attached to a definite known outcome but rather to the developing creative processes which become part of our individual journey.


[1] Phillip Zarrilli discusses Copeau’s vision of training which shares several important basic assumptions with training in an Asian martial art. That the act of embodiment is present as a mind aspect, and that progressive development of such an awareness comes through the process of corporeal training per se. He states that these ideas reject the Cartesian body-mind dualism, assuming instead that the body-mind is an integrated whole. ( Zarrilli 1995:P.189)

[2] Notes taken from Phillip Zarrill’s workshop ‘Making The body all eyes’ September 11 –15,2000 International Workshop festival, Jerwood Space London. Zarrilli teaches a form of psycho-physical training to unlock the body’s natural flow of internal energy. The workshop explored the dialogue between the martial arts and performance by applying principles learned in training to texts by the Japanese playwright /director Ota Shoga which required the embodiment of ‘slowed –down everyday movement. Phillip Zarrilli is Professor Of Theatre at the University of Exeter.

[3] Understandings and perceptions of ‘less means more’ as described in Chapter 8 from Beckett in Performance, here Kalb discusses Beckett and the avant-garde. He writes , ‘ Beckett’s inner calm, his unceasing effort to pare down, to weed out every inessential syllable, discarding all technical "gimmicks", stands diametrically opposed to the ethic of eclecticism and entropy in what is sometimes called "pluralistic performance". (Kalb 1989: P159)

[4] Liminality – limen or liminel was used by Victor Turner in his work on anthropology and performance to describe a certain marginalized space. Susan Broadhurst contextualises liminality and describes certain traits, these being: indeterminacy; fragmentation; a loss of the auratic and the collapse of the hierarchical distinction between high and mass/popular culture. She uses Pina Bausch as an example, where dance and theatre can be seen to coexist. (Broadhurst 1999 P. 12,13 )

11. References

Bogart, A.: A Director Prepares. P.22. Routledge, 2001.

Brown, C.: ‘Tall Stories’ Dance Theatre Journal volume 16 no.4, 2001 P. 22.

Conner, S.: Samuel Beckett Repetition, Theory and Text, ‘What? Where? Space and the Body’ Pierre Chabert 27-8 P.159, Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Mc Caw, D.: ‘Flying not falling’, Dancing with Dominic Dupuy, Dance Theatre Theatre Journal volume 16 no 1, 2000, P.17.

Reid, A.: All I Can Manage More Than I Could, P.12 Dolman Press, 1968.

Wulf, C. (ed.): Samuel Beckett Today The Savage Eye, Beckett and the (Un)Changing Image of The Mind P.152 Rodophi Amsterdam – Atlanta, GA 1995.

Zarrilli, P.: ‘On the edge of a breath looking’ P.187 Acting (Re)Considered. Routledge, 1995.

The author

Ruth Way studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance and the Merce Cunningham Studio, New York. Ruth has performed with Dublin Contemporary Dance theatre and internationally with Earthfall Dance, Wales. Ruth has taught at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, London , Cygnet Training Theatre Exeter and extensively throughout Great Britain. Appointed lecturer in Theatre and Performance at the University of Plymouth in 1997. Current research projects include the production of a dance/visual arts film and a physical theatre performance of M(other) devised by Lusty Juventus Physical Theatre Company.

Ruth Way



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