Green Card Blues

June 21, 2007

In 1961 Rudolph Nureyev defected to the West, fleeing his homeland to expand his artistic horizons. In the 1970s, fellow Russians Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov followed suit. They are among countless dancers the world over who have come to the United States in an effort to explore new forms—and in doing so, have enriched our world immeasurably. But getting (and staying) here isn’t as easy as you’d think. And as fears of terrorism and joblessness fuel the current immigration ruckus, the number of artists who will be able to enter the U.S. in the future remains uncertain. Dance Magazine talked to five artists about their personal journeys.

Boston Ballet corps member Jaime Diaz first trained at his parents’ school in Bogota, Colombia. He ventured to Cuba at age 13 to study at the prestigious school of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and entered the company as a first soloist in 2000. He dreamed of performing contemporary and classic works. In 2003 that dream became a reality when he successfully auditioned for the Boston Ballet. Though Diaz was scheduled to start with the company in August, he didn’t get his visa until December. Diaz doesn’t know why his visa was held up, but he thinks the fact that Colombia is perceived as a nation linked to terrorism and drug smuggling may have had something to do with it.

Luckily, the Boston Ballet staff pushed for him to get to the U.S., which sped up the process. Now that he’s here, the soft-spoken Diaz says, “My favorite part about the States is that you get a lot of opportunities. In Cuba, we dance all the classics. But here we get to dance a mixed repertory.” Happily, he has been cast in works by Forsythe and Kylián as well as Petipa.

Hiroshima native Yasuko Yokoshi, now an established presence in downtown New York, arrived here in 1981 with one suitcase and no hotel reservation. She had studied classical ballet as a child, but abandoned it to prepare for a career as a bilingual secretary. In order to improve her English, she went to Dean College in Massachusetts—where there were no other Japanese students. But she deep-sixed her secretarial career when she joined Dean’s excellent modern dance program.

Yokoshi believes that today’s immigrants are creating a dynamic society within American culture. But she also thinks that the faction of Americans who are railing against immigrants feel threatened by them. “Sometimes American artists say, ‘You’re Japanese, why are you taking our money?’ ” Yokoshi understands their frustration, yet feels that it’s easier for people to expel their anger on someone of a different race or nationality.

She’s been here so long that she has developed a double identity. “I’ve been here more than half my life,” she says, “so Japanese people consider me almost American when I go back.”  Recently she received a U.S. grant to study in Japan, with a master of traditional Kabuki dance—who accepted her as a student because she was “American.” Her latest piece was an intriguing blend of her Kabuki training and the writings of the very American Raymond Carver. (Imagine pulling a cigarette lighter out of a kimono sleeve in slow motion.)

Caracas, Venezuela is the birthplace of dancer/choreographer Julieta Valero. A former member of Caracas’ Danzahoy, she founded and directs Brooklyn-based Rastro Dance Company, made up mostly of dancers who are South American immigrants. She came to New York in 1995 on a student visa to study at the Merce Cunningham studio. After a year and a half, she left the Cunningham school, which meant her student visa was no longer legal. She was broke and afraid she’d be deported. “I was on the subway when I had a panic attack and thought I was going to die,” she recalls. She nervously called her then-boyfriend, Edgar Rodriguez, a fellow Venezuelan who was living in Utah. Luckily, Edgar had been born in the States, and he and Valero decided to marry. (He is now assistant director of Rastro). She was not allowed to leave the U.S. for two years while she waited for an updated visa. The red tape was endless.

But the struggle for Valero to live here has been worth it. “I feel liberated. When I present my work here, I am free to experiment,” she says. “Even if the audience is mad when they leave the show, at least I’ve made a mark, a footprint.”

Kaori Nakamura, a principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, was born and raised in Gumma, Japan. After winning a ballet competition in Lausanne at 15, she chose to come to the School of American Ballet in New York on a student visa. She spoke no English, but soon made friends and started to feel more at home—so much so that she thought she’d dance here permanently. But that wasn’t in the cards—the green card to be exact. Because she didn’t have one, she was forced to go back to Japan, where ballet companies are very different. “In Japan you have to buy your own pointe shoes, because there’s no money for art,” she says. In order to make a living as a dancer, you have to teach, too. “In the U.S. I can concentrate on my dancing,” she says. “It’s great!”

Nakamura danced throughout Japan, and in 1990 left to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where she was made principal. After seven seasons, she was itching to step out and dance a new rep. She was accepted into Pacific Northwest Ballet as a soloist in 1997, but missed her first season while waiting for her visa to come through. She had sold her house in Winnipeg and had to scramble for places to stay for a month. “I was waiting, waiting, and the company had started work. I was stuck in Canada with nothing to do and nowhere to live,” she says. She finally got a special artist’s visa, which had to be renewed yearly. “Every year is like hell when you’re waiting for that visa,” says Nakamura. After a few years, she got a green card, which involved a lengthy process of talking with lawyers and, you guessed it—waiting. Now that she has her green card, she feels her dancing has improved. “I don’t have to worry,” she says. “It’s so much less stressful that my dancing feels better.”

Nora Chipaumire, a powerhouse of a performer with Urban Bush Women, hails from Zimbabwe, a land of unrivaled natural beauty. In Africa, dance is part of everyday life, and Chipaumire learned to dance by watching others. Most African artists in Zimbabwe are self-taught, as it’s a prejudiced belief that the arts are something that Africans don’t need to learn. “I grew up in Harare, the capital, where only Europeans could go to ballet classes,” she says. After a high school career as a radio-play actor and broadcaster, Chipaumire got her law degree at a Zimbabwean university. She came to New York on a student visa for New York University’s journalism school, but once here, she decided she wanted to become the next Spike Lee, and headed to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which Lee had attended. When she didn’t get in, she fled to California, heartbroken. She enrolled at Laney College in Oakland. When her student visa ran out, she was illegal for a hot second. She wanted to stay in the States, as she’d discovered modern dance at Laney. “I saw that I could tell stories through dance, and that modern dance was built upon self-expression,” she says. “Everything I had been experimenting with came together for me.”

Chipaumire was able to remain here because she got married. It was a real (not just-for-the-green-card) marriage that lasted eight years. In 2003, after attending Mills College, she auditioned for Urban Bush Women, and made it into the company. “UBW were using a movement language that was close to what I was investigating—that’s a pretty happy union,” she says.

But after all her years in the States, she still feels the sting of being an immigrant. “I know the fears of being under the table, of being an outsider, and feeling like I stick out like a sore thumb,” she says. “There’s a more aggressive urgency to survival for immigrants in the years I’ve been here.” She says that poor treatment (like being underpaid and disrespected due to lack of language skills) causes immigrants to feel shamed, and then they try to be invisible. But one positive thing has come out of these observations: Chipaumire is creating a dance investigating this “being the other” phenomenon. While she feels lucky to have a green card, she thinks people need to remember that part of what has made America great is the fact that outsiders have historically been welcomed. “This country was built by immigrants,” says Chipaumire. “The reason people come to America is to pursue their dreams.”

Nancy Alfaro, a former dancer, is a writer based in New York.