How a Lack of Dance Criticism in the U.S. Affects International Dancers’ Visa Applications

July 5, 2023

One of the dance industry’s greatest assets is its internationality. Many techniques are practiced worldwide and few performances incorporate speech, helping dance artists and productions cross borders and seas. Throughout history, dancers have used their talents to travel, at times to escape persecution or poverty, and countries including the United States have put dance groups at the forefront of their cultural-diplomacy efforts.

Although a lot of dance slips easily past language barriers, its global circulation is increasingly expensive and relies heavily on the written word. In order to be approved for domestic employ­ment, professionals without a U.S. passport need exten­sive paperwork. Called a petition, it’s a stack of documents literally printed on paper and mailed to a federal government agency called USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security). Often handled by the employer or presenter, the process takes months, currently costs about $500—more on that later—and, for individuals and touring groups, part of that stack needs to be evidence supporting the petitioner’s claim that the dancer or ensemble is one of a kind and something special. The evidence should include dance reviews; petitions without them may be unsuccessful. For dance companies in cities without critics, this could ultimately mean fewer international artists.

While most choreographers and companies welcome advance press—interview-based articles that report from a creative process or contextualize a coming premiere—they may be wary of the help or harm a review has in store. One thing is clear about dance reviews today: Mainstream media outlets in the U.S. generally don’t publish them, with a handful of exceptions in a few cities with many, many millions of residents.

This, of course, is old news. I gave a presentation about diminishing critical coverage, and its impact on the cultural nonprofit industrial complex, at a Dance/USA conference in 2011. At the time, I was a magazine editor who published three or more reviews weekly; within months, I’d hopped the proverbial fence to work in public relations.

Critical dialogue in dance today takes many forms, none in short supply. There might even be more cultural exchange and dance collaboration than ever, thanks to audience-engagement programs, the algorithms of video-based networks, and an image-heavy attention economy. (As a result, and a delightful consequence, many people encounter dancing bodies in the real world more frequently than they used to.) But reviews of live dance performances, in print or online, in publications with at least a few thousand readers, do not exist in most media markets.

The Joffrey Ballet has visas to manage for as many as 19 employees in its coming season, supporting company dancers as well as artistic staff and academy faculty. USCIS is considering changes that could double or even triple the cost per petition, renewed every one to three years depending on the type of visa. (A separate fee, for consular processing, already went up $15 at the end of May.) So expense is a serious issue, as is the ever-less-predictable turnaround time, regardless of whether reviews mentioning a dancer by name exist or not.

It’s an administrative, scheduling, and financial tightrope even for a major ballet company in Chicago with a diverse roster. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s immigration attorney is also concerned—due to scant review opportunities there, aside from outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle—about Smuin’s petitions on behalf of its international artists. USCIS agents who approve petitions are not likely to be dance experts. “Bloggers and small papers don’t have the weight in the eyes of the government,” Smuin’s Ellen Gaintner, special projects manager, told Dance Magazine. “The New York Times is still providing extensive New York coverage, but there is a whole country out here.”

Consider, in these circumstances, the situation facing a nonprofit dance organization that centers people of color and a non-European art form, poised and eager to welcome an international artist to its community of dancers, students, fans, and friends. Perhaps the local daily newspaper reviewed that company in the past year. If so, did it mention anyone by name? A newsroom editor might assign a dance review now and then. One is probably of a local, annual production of The Nutcracker, the other might be a performance by a touring company, and that could be it for the whole year.

Intrepid, socially networked marketing and communications staff are some of the most passionate, effective workers in the dance field. Through sustaining relationships with numerous people and keeping track of who’s where and writes about what (which ain’t easy), an organization can land enough media mentions in enough outlets for a petition to make up in volume what its press hits might lack in name recognition. Those mentions might also help program officers and other arts grantmakers, working for public funding agencies and foundations in dance philanthropy, substantiate the case that a local nonprofit deserves a new grant or a higher grant amount. Receiving that grant might mean the students get an amazing master class, the studio ceiling stops leaking, and the Wi-Fi works better for the often-underpaid arts administrators who make it all happen.

When there’s no international exchange between artists and no money to pay people, it’s harder to incentivize the full-time commitments to an art form that produce extraordinary experiences for the public. In March, the Performing Arts Visa Working Group, whose members include Dance/USA and OPERA America, submitted comments to Homeland Security on the proposed fee increases and other changes to the visa petition process, signed by more than 120 organizations nationwide. Half of the potential $1,195 fee increase per petition, due whether you’re a dance company or a corporate employer, would subsidize the department’s spending on an asylum program.

Even the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy weighed in on the price of employing international workers, telling USCIS in March that the policy change would make it “cost prohibitive for small businesses and small nonprofits to hire necessary staff.”

“Arts petitions are a sliver of the casework USCIS adjudicators contend with,” state the Performing Arts Visa Working Group’s comments to Homeland Security. “This latest fee proposal would render this benefit completely inaccessible to many arts petitioners in the U.S. and could threaten the ability of some entities and their related industries to continue operations.”

Decisions on the fee increases and other proposed changes are expected later this year.