Thinking About Dance

In which I write a bit more abstractly about dance, and usually, by extension, life and my still-forming philosophies on the two.

A blank slate

A few months ago, after watching a group of my peers doing a light run of one of the pieces that will be performed for the very last time this evening, I jotted down these observations:

There’s something special about watching a group of dancers rehearse. But let me be more specific. There’s something about watching a group of dancers who love and support each other, who have worked closely together for a number of years. There’s something about taking a community with these sorts of relationships and putting them in an informal rehearsal setting, one where there’s nothing to prove, no one at the front of the room to impress, just the space and sound and moves and, most significantly, each other. Then there are sudden glimmers of smiles between friends, startled laughter over near misses, approving whistles when someone grabs a motion out of the void and makes it into something. There are quick bursts of conversation and inside jokes woven within the sequence of the choreography. And sometimes in the midst of the casual camaraderie the air is sucked right out of the room when the group spontaneously arrives together to create a moment out of nothing, coalescing and collapsing in the breath between the crash of one wave against the next.

My awe for the superhumans I work with every day has only grown since then, because they are all so beautifully flawed and human and brilliant. Now, four months later, we are a few hours away from our last performance together as a class. Some of my classmates have already booked their first jobs. Others are in the midst of final round callbacks. Others still have yet to make it past the first cut at any audition. Some of us have been auditioning since December; some of us are only just revving up. Some of us are looking into further education, or to forging our own paths. And that’s before I start thinking about my friends outside of the Department of Dance. The future, right now, is a wonderfully, terrifyingly blank slate.

Here is what I know: we are, all of us, going to be okay.

I have been thinking a lot about auditions this semester. Not just because I’m in the midst of trying to get a job myself, but also because I have been helping in the office at Tisch Dance with auditions for the incoming class. I can remember my own audition experience vividly for a lot of reasons, but the clearest is still the way I felt myself settle, somehow, once we started class. Was I nervous? Sure. But something about the faculty, the space,  made something in me calm. It felt right to be there. So I knew, if I were to be fortunate enough to be offered a place there, I would say yes.

Auditions are a frustrating process, and as anyone on the other side of the table will tell you, you cannot possibly get to know a candidate at the level you would like to in that kind of format. A lot of it is unfortunately based in quick decisions that have nothing to do with you or your value as a dancer or artist or person. There’s been a lot written on how to approach auditions, and I won’t bother reiterating all of it here–just the one thing.

The best piece of audition advice I’ve ever been given is this: you might be auditioning for them, but they are also auditioning for you. Artists, in my experience, tend to have pretty excellent instincts when we give them a chance. The same is true of most people, really. You will know when something is right. And remember that never, ever, are you out of options. There are so many choices for you to make. You just have to explore until you find the one that feels right.

Sitting in the Jack Crystal Theatre, getting ready for my final performance as a member of the Second Avenue Dance Company, I don’t really know what is going to happen next. But I look around at this space that has seen me change and fly and fail and live and I know that, regardless, this was my right choice.

I don’t know what will happen next. But I know that I’m going to be okay. And so are you.

 

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Bye…à la Sylvie

For many in the dance world, late December is the season of endless, unchanging Nutcrackers. This season was particularly unusual, however, for the almost-unbelievable retirement of the legendary Sylvie Guillem from the stage. The performer who earned the nickname Mademoiselle Non (for her insistence on doing the work that she wanted to do on her own terms) did not go out with anything so predictable as the Sugar Plum Fairy variation but with an evening of contemporary work by her favorite collaborators: Life In Motion marked Sylvie’s final performances in Japan less than two weeks ago.

I was fortunate enough to see the program when it toured to New York City Center in November. Perhaps because of this, to me the final month of 2015 has seemed less the usual jumble and rush of the holidays than an opportunity to take a breath, look around, and think about what it means to let go and move on.

After all, December also marks the winter solstice, the holiday season, and the deep breath we all take before plunging into a new year. What are these if not opportunities to take a look around and maybe see about making a few changes?

The simple idea of letting something go has snagged my attention these past few weeks. How much time do we spend holding onto things that do not actually do us any good? Why continue to value ideas that are no longer serving us?

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Guillem in the final piece of her Life in Progress program: Mats Ek’s “Bye”

Sylvie became an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet at age 19 (one of the most coveted positions in all of classical ballet) but left four years later to pursue something different. Her career as a guest artist at The Royal Ballet and all over the world as a freelance contemporary artist has been anything but predictable. I think if anyone understands how to let go of notions of the self that are limiting, it’s her.

I’ve realized that for a long time, I have held onto the idea that being a dancer meant paring away everything that is not strictly related to becoming exactly what the dance world expects me to be. Sacrifice was a word thrown around a lot in my early training. I listened to dancers who claimed with earnest smiles that dance was their whole life and did everything I could to emulate that ideal. Even now, three and a half years into my college career with the hard-earned knowledge that to be an artist means to be a person first, I find myself thinking that I would be a better dancer if I cut out everything else. I still sometimes catch myself pushing away the people who remind me how important it is to have a real life outside of the studio, too.

Now, I am not one to make New Year’s Resolutions. I do, however, like the idea of setting themes, and this year’s has turned out to be more of a challenge to myself–something between a resolution and a theme. I am trying to shed the idea that I need to be anything less than the brilliantly flawed, three-dimensional person that I am in order to be successful. Maybe certain versions of success would demand that of me, but I do not find that path to be interesting anymore.

And if ever there was any doubt that refusing to simplify yourself to fit into someone else’s idea of perfection could work, remember Mademoiselle Non. Sylvie did it, and I think it’s fair to say that it worked out for her. So why not the rest of us?

In Flux

Failli. I first heard the word a few weeks into the beginnings of my ballet training, age eleven. It was one of the few French terms for which my classmates did not have a quick and easy translation–plié was to bend, tendu to stretch, but failli? All I knew was that it was a transition step, one with such importance as to have a unique, elegant name of its own. Failli took on an aura of mystery for me in my early training, when I was obsessively researching and categorizing every bit of information I could find about my newfound passion.

Funnily enough, transition steps are the ones that often fall by the wayside between intermediate and advanced dance training. They are the ones that connect the ‘important’ steps, after all. But, in the words of one of my favorite contemporary teachers, you have to learn to dance “the dance of no transitions.” The idea is that no one step is less valid, less vital, than any other. In the dance of no transitions, how you get from one big thing to the next is as important as getting there.

Last week I found myself contemplating how this might apply to my life outside of movement sequences. New York City has been in that odd place between summer and autumn, where you aren’t sure whether stepping out in jeans is a good idea or exactly what to set your thermostat on. My yoga teacher pointed out that as the seasons change, we have to adjust with them, and that leaves us with a choice: Do we “just get through” this potentially awkward patch, or do we take this transition with as much care and attention as we do the highlights?

Transition steps are important in dance because they are what set you up for the big, noticeable steps. If a transition lacks attention, the movement phrase as a whole becomes disjointed and less than fulfilled. In life, how we treat ourselves–our bodies, our hearts, our brains–in times of transition sets the tone for the season that is to follow.

Here, dear reader, is my challenge to you: as the heat of summer bleeds away and the crispness of autumn rolls into place, take time to notice the in-between steps. Maybe you’ll set yourself up for something amazing.

[P.S. One of my colleagues tells me that in certain contexts or turns of phrase in the French language, failli can mean nearly or almost falling. Food for thought.]

(un)finished

What is a work in progress?

This question, scrawled in my notebook last week as the lights dimmed for the dress rehearsal of “Starts and Fits, No Middles No Ends: Eight Unfinished Dances,” was the first and last coherent statement I wrote that evening. My classmates and I had rushed over to the Danspace Project to see our composition teacher Rashaun Mitchell in a brand new “dance dialogue” alongside Jody Melnick, Sara Mearns, and Sterling Hyltin. Theirs was a casual intensity, one that made the decidedly unfinished nature of the work feel like a natural choice. It was brilliant, strange, humorous, unexpected, thought-provoking…

Unfinished. It begs the question ‘What do we mean by unfinished work?’ A work in progress, something not-yet-complete, a piece in the midst of process.

All of which implies, when you think on it, that there is a place this work is attempting to reach–a place in which the work will be “finished” when it is reached.

So, next question: Does this place exist? Can we even get there? Do we really want to?

My reflexive answer: Yes, of course. Allow me to point to a standing masterpiece, say George Balanchine’s Apollo. Immediately, however, I have to amend my answer. Balanchine’s Apollo is an oft-performed masterpiece that the choreographer created, and re-created, and re-created throughout his career from his days at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to his own New York City Ballet. Even today, every major ballet company in the world who has Apollo in its repertory differs from every other, because virtually no one dances the same version. The Royal Ballet has a prologue that was later omitted, while NYCB begins with Apollo and his lyre and dances what is perhaps the most stripped-down version. Are these each in their own right complete? Yes, absolutely–just not in the same way. And, I would argue, they are all constantly, delightfully, works in progress.

Dance, by its very nature, is ephemeral. Our bodies are our instruments, and we wake up in a different one every day. The work that we do, by extension, changes with us. No two performances of the same piece will ever be identical, even with the exact same dancers. Add in new performers and the work changes even more: seeing Sterling Hyltin take over Wendy Whelan’s part in Alexei Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a markedly different experience, even though the choreography was identical. The work is never static or unchanging.

Maybe that’s what makes art so inherently human–maybe the ephemerality, the ever-shifting nuances, the countless choices that go into creating a moment onstage is what makes dance so transcendently us, in the end. It is all just an ever-changing, hopefully improving, draft. Does this lessen the work? I don’t think so. Do we attempt to present something to the audience that is “finished”? Yes, but the key word is not “finished,” but “attempt.” It is the striving, the discovery and the failures and the surprises that create the work, that make the work worth doing. “Process not product,” one of my teachers is fond of reminding us. “The dance is never done,” he continues.

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The work is always in progress.

 

 

 

{an aside: In the 2004 film Hawking, listening to Bach’s final, unfinished composition, Roger Penrose (Tom Ward) muses, “Bach didn’t finish it…but it’s so perfect. Everything done before it [is] so perfect, it’s as if it doesn’t end, you can hear it after it stops. Listen. Can you hear it?”}

 

Ballet, Relationships, Community: Justin Peck at NYCB and Cedar Lake’s Latest Installation

A couple of weeks ago, I had the immense (and unexpected) privilege of seeing not one, but two of my favorite companies performing brand new work: ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes (Justin Peck) at New York City Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015 (Alexandra Damiani and Cedar Lake Dancers). Surprisingly enough, the two works had more in common than you might guess.

On the evening that I made my way up to Lincoln Center (February 4th), Justin Peck and fellow NYCB Soloist Sean Suozzi were required to step into an injured Andrew Veyette’s role for the world premiere of the ballet. Despite the small hiccup this created in fully understanding the composition of his new work, the novelty of seeing Peck dance one of his own ballets was a treat–much like the piece itself. I will admit to feeling some trepidation at the announcement that Peck was to choreograph to Aaron Copland’s iconic score (Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo is, after all, a classic), yet he rose to the challenge of the wide spaces and rambunctious movement of the music beautifully. The movement highlighted the technical bravura, quickness, and lightness of City Ballet’s men while Sara Mearns, the sole woman in the cast, had a refreshing naivete and youthfulness that I tend not to associate with her typically fierce and soulful performances (her technique was, of course, as sharp and sure as ever). Another standout was Taylor Stanley, whose ability to fully embody any movement was particularly  notable in the second ‘episode’. The beautiful origami of Peck’s spatial organization gave way to humor, to casual conversation, to quiet friendship and the sweet possibility of more. In short: Peck’s usual quirkiness, beauty, and humor in perfect measure. (I highly recommend checking out the handful of clips on City Ballet’s website.)

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's Installation 2015

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Installation 2015; Photo Credit: Nir Arieli

Four nights later, I found myself walking into a warehouse-like room already filled with bodies–including the members of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, wearing dark shawls and sweaters over black costume skirts and bare feet, moving around the circular mini-stage set in the center of the space. As the dancers came face to face, they initiated contact and held it, first with simple, intimate gestures and progressing to sharing each other’s weight.  A delicate intensity was already brewing between the dancers, and this was only the introduction. The piece, created by Artistic Director Alexandra Damiani and nine members of the company, had movement that ranged from delicacy to extremism, with relationships emerging between the dancers that could be sexy, tender, near-violent, or all of the above as they stripped down to near-nakedness in the course of the evening.

These were not the only relationships that were interesting, however. Violin and viola duo Chargaux, who composed and performed the music for the installation, were only rarely tucked away in a corner to play; more often than not, they were moved by the dancers or wound their way through the center of the space, sometimes drawing focus to a particular event but often giving a visible reference to the relationship every dancer had with what they were hearing. One memorable moment towards the close of the piece had one of the musicians ‘playing’ a female dancer like a violin, undulating under her skilled hands. The performers’ relationships to space were delightfully complex in that every part of the room could be used as a stage; at some points it was physically impossible to see everything that was happening. This multiplicity of focus is where perhaps the most fascinating relationship of the evening came to light: that of the audience itself with the performers and the space. Dancers might brush past to get to their next cue, create a human chain to make the audience shift positions in the space, or leave the audience to their own devices so that they have to make their own choices about how they experience the work. The piece was a study in and a ritual of intimacy, as much between the dancers as the audience. What was on display was probably a clearer demonstration of who the company is than you will ever see at one of their repertory concerts: a community of unique movement artists who are willing to let an audience get this close to their work.

So what does this study in intimacy by one of New York’s coolest contemporary ballet companies have to do with a brand new piece at one of the top ballet companies in the world? At first glance (or second), not much more than a general medium and a (somewhat) related technique base. The glitz and glamour of the David H. Koch Theatre against Cedar Lake’s unassuming rehearsal studios near Chelsea Piers; pointe shoes and ballet slippers against socks and bare feet; the work of a solo choreographer against a collaborative creation process; an audience comfortably relaxed in assigned seats beyond the proscenium arch against one that is free (and encouraged) to take any vantage point they wish.

The common thread, in a word, is community.

ˈRōdēˌō: Four Dance Episodes   World Premiere Choreography by Justin Peck New York City Ballet   Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik studio@paulkolnik.com nyc 212-362-7778

NYCB in ˈRōdēˌō: Four Dance Episodes (World Premiere) by Justin Peck; Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

What really impressed me about Peck’s take on Rodeo is the manner in which he created an entire world that felt very real without any of the encumbrances of plot. Sara Mearns first appears like a dream as the men stand casually grouped together, for all appearances chatting as though during a rehearsal break. Later, Mearns places a reassuring hand on Taylor Stanley’s shoulder before dancing a pas de deux with Amar Ramasar; equal partnership and friendship is on display as opposed to the more typical ‘man lifts woman’ paradigm that is often presented. Daniel Ulbricht took some light teasing for the contrast between his bravura dancing and diminutive stature; four men sat with their legs dangling into the orchestra pit below, laughing and horsing around. We are not just seeing choreographed interactions, but an extension of the relationships that exist between colleagues who have been working and training together for years. Now look at Cedar Lake, where the movement on display was so obviously from the dancers’ own bodies–different bodies, yet smoothed out among the company to look both natural and unique. Look at the care they took in partnering each other, in taking care of each other as they hung upside down and slammed into walls and navigated through seas of unrehearsed audience members. You get the sense, watching either of these companies in action, that no matter the situation, these dancers are going to take care of each other as they do their work, whether that means catching a colleague flying through the air or managing a few partnered pirouettes.

And, in totally different ways, both managed to reach out to the audience and say, “Hey, why don’t you join us tonight?” I felt swept up in both of these worlds, enamored by the dancers and entranced by the music and utterly unaware of the passage of time. I felt as though I was witnessing something important, something almost sacred–and what’s more, I felt myself to be some small part of it, whether the action was happening inches from where I stood or on the opposite side of a packed theatre. This, I think, is why I do the work that I do. This is what it’s really about: the ritual of art illuminating and creating communities of individuals.

What I Would Have Told Myself as a New Tischie

Whew! We did it! My classmates and I have just completed the 2014 Tisch Dance Summer Residency Festival, which means that we are absolutely, 100% done with our first year! Looking back, it’s been completely mad. Absolutely mental. And while my experiences this year have not changed who I am, per se, I cannot say that I have remained unaffected; rather, I have become more deeply and wholly myself.

And, as I look back, I also can’t help but think of all the things I rather wish I could have told myself in the first few weeks at this program. So, here are fourteen things I’ve figured out this year that might have been good to hear about ten months ago (too bad the TARDIS is unavailable…)

  1. You deserve to be here. You will probably find yourself at dance orientation wondering how on earth you’re in a room with so many beautiful people. And then in placement classes and the first few weeks of technique and composition you’ll realize that all of these beautiful people know how to move. It’s going to be terribly intimidating. You aren’t going to doubt that any of your peers belong here, so don’t doubt that the faculty knew what they were doing when they decided that you—yes, you—deserve to be here, too.
  2. Be yourself. It’s not just a cliché anymore, it’s one of the many high expectations that this school has for you. The faculty will not try to make you a particular kind of dancer. They will be scary and/or silly, almost definitely tough, and collectively from an insanely diverse array of backgrounds, but everything they do comes from a place of caring about helping you to become the best version of yourself. They’re going to give you as many tools as possible, because the hallmark of a Tisch dancer is not one who looks or moves a certain way but one who can adapt to nearly anything and always has a point of view that is distinctly their own.That extends to your peers as well. Don’t fret about not fitting in. In the studio, the individual is celebrated even as we form a community that loves to share movement with each other. Anything less than your brilliantly imperfect self just won’t cut it here, inside the studio or out.
  3. Practice gratitude and positivity. Begin every class with a happy thought. Don’t just say thank you to your teachers at the end of class out of habit. Be grateful to them, as well as to your peers who are in the trenches with you, to the musicians who are sometimes the only thing that will get you through a rough day (or, other times, will play your favorite song just to make you smile), and to anyone or anything that makes your day better or brighter. You are fortunate enough to be able to do what you love every single day, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult, so create an environment for yourself that reminds you of the good things even when you think you cannot possibly stand to be in the dance building for another moment.
  4. Show up and do the hard work. And, every day, thank yourself for doing it.
  5. Accept that sometimes things just won’t work. There are going to be days that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t do a single pirouette and cannot seem to complete even the simplest movement phrases. And that is absolutely okay. Shaking it off—or better yet, being able to laugh at yourself—is a lot more productive (and healthier) than getting upset every time you don’t have a perfect class (which, lets face it, is every day). Technique, in some fashion or other, is something that you will be constantly working on until the last day of your career. So work hard, work smart, but don’t freak out.
  6. Deal with it. Whenever freaking out inevitably occurs (because it will), go with it. Feel whatever anger or disappointment or fear or sadness you’re going through. Ride it out. Face it, because ignoring it won’t help anyone. Then step away, acknowledge that it happened, and keep moving forward. And on the really brilliant days, let yourself feel that too.
  7. Listen to your body. Know the difference between discomfort that you can push through and signals from your body that say you need to take a step back. At the same time, however, don’t treat injuries as limitations. Think of them as challenges in the choreography. Prioritize sleep, eat the foods that will help you survive the day, and, for the love of all that is good, ROLL OUT AFTER CLASS.
  8. Take care of each other. One of our main jobs as dancers is to take care of each other, because if we don’t then nobody else will. There are people here that will love you for all of your quirkiness and madness, not in spite of it but because of it. They will take care of you when you need them to. Return the favor. Sometimes if you’re wobbling, the best way to help yourself is to help balance the people who are wobbling more than you are. And (bonus!) dancers give the best hugs.
  9. Be a real human. Don’t lose your sense of self outside of being a dancer. The best dancers, you will soon realize, put themselves into the work.
  10. Find the value in watching. I don’t just mean keeping your eyes open, I mean observing. Of course you should watch your peers in class to give yourself advice or be inspired to approach a movement in a different way, but there is also something very special about coming together with a group of people and really seeing each other move, in witnessing the work happening. No one knows where any of you will be in three years after graduation, but right now you are in a community filled to the brim with brilliant budding artists, and getting to see the collective and individual growth of your peers is one of the greatest gifts of going through this program.On that note, see dance whenever, wherever, however you can. You’re in New York, something is always happening (usually, very many somethings). And then talk about it. And then see some more. [Student discounts are, after all, a wonderful thing.]
  11. Show up and speak up. If you see someone doing work that you find interesting, tell them so. If you want to work with someone, talk to them about it. Chat with the faculty; they have an absurd amount of knowledge that, in most cases, they would love to share. If the MFA candidates or upperclassmen hold an informal audition or an improv jam, go to it (they aren’t nearly as scary as you think they are). Try for opportunities you think you have no shot at. Be humble, be honest, be kind, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there; some of your best opportunities will come from asking, or by just saying yes.
  12. Explore new ground without losing sight of where you come from. Experiment, try new things, get so far out of your comfort zone that you have absolutely no clue what you’re doing. But don’t ever discount what you enjoy or where you’re comfortable—it’s the confluence of knowing where you like to move from and stretching past your edges that will give life to your own voice.
  13. Your work is valid. So is your point of view.
  14. Embrace the chaos. This many college-aged artists moving and creating in a single building for the majority of the day at least five days a week results in madness. It’s a pressure cooker within the pressure cooker that is New York. You’ll love each other by Christmas and be ready to rip each other’s throats out by summer because families are like that. Students and faculty alike will challenge you to broaden your idea of what dance is, what it can be, what you can be. Absurd things will happen. Plans will change at the drop of the hat. You might learn a part backstage five minutes before going onstage; you might put together a ten-minute piece in less than a week; there might be a piles of brown paper bags or tutus or singing trees. Or, most shocking of all, you might have a normal day (as normal as our days ever get, at least). The point is, you can never know. Figure out what you need for relative stability so that you make it to the other side, be it your morning coffee or a certain ab workout before class or talking to your best friend(s). And then smile, open your heart, and take it all in.

It’s going to be a mad ride. And it’ll go by quicker than you realize. You’re never going to actually feel ready. But you are.

So, shall we dance?

Keep Moving//Film Adaptation News!

Happy Monday!

Today was our first day back at Tisch Dance after a weeklong holiday for Spring Break. Right now, I’m sitting in my dorm, ice on my feet (recovering from a minor ankle sprain, no worries), already feeling the tightness in my calves from ballet this morning, a burgeoning bruise from attacking the floor in modern, and an ache in one inner thigh from working in dance composition this afternoon. Hell, my feet are even cramping a bit and I knew a good twelve hours ago that I was going to be sore by tomorrow morning.

And all I can think is how happy I am to be moving again after a week away.

The first part of this semester was rough (see: sprained ankle, among other things), and it wasn’t until the last week or two before break that I was able to reconnect with my positivity and my absolute need to be in the studio. But on the toughest days, what got me through was, very simply, dragging myself get into the studio and making myself move.

And that’s just it, really. Do not stop moving. As long as you’re moving, time will move with you and somehow you’ll make it through to the other side.

I’m not talking just about dance here. Einstein told us, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” Physically, intellectually, emotionally. Keep questioning, keep thinking forward, keep learning, because otherwise, what’s the point? Whether it’s a good day or the worst, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, because being stagnant only means that time will leave you behind.

Not that there is anything wrong with a considered stillness. Just so long as stillness is the move.

Sometimes all you can do is keep moving–that way, on the truly brilliant days, you can fly.

So that’s my random philosophy for the day.

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Just a bit of Monday inspiration: The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in David Dawson’s The Human Seasons. Photo by Dave Morgan

 

On another, nerdier note, it’s just been announced that John Green’s novel, Paper Towns, is being made into a film with John himself acting as an executive producer, and I am freaking out with the best of them. I started reading John Green’s novels in high school when a friend loaned me a copy of Looking for Alaska (which I am now hopeful will get its own film adaptation at some point in the future). It’s really awesome getting to see such a fantastic author’s work gaining more traction in the public consciousness, first with the upcoming film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars and now with Paper Towns.