News

Is the US Government Cracking Down on Artists' Visas?

Bereishit Dance Company had to cancel North American performances in 2017 due to a visa issue. Photo by Sanghun Ok, courtesy Bereishit.

In late March, The Joyce Theater's annual gala performance included a last-minute substitution: Blueprint, by choreographer Pam Tanowitz. The trio took the place of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Faun, after two Paris Opéra Ballet dancers were unable to secure visas to appear onstage in the U.S.

"It was a shock," says Linda Shelton, executive director at The Joyce Theater. "In all 25 of my years here, I think we'd only been turned down once before. That was ages ago and we already had a feeling that dancer wouldn't be approved anyway, because of an issue with their passport. This was just a big, big surprise."


Less than a month later, news broke that visa petitions for Bolshoi Ballet stars Olga Smirnova and Jacopo Tissi to perform at the Youth America Grand Prix gala had also been denied. In February 2017, Minneapolis presenter Northrop was forced to cancel a performance by South Korea's Bereishit Dance Company, which was to kick off its second North American tour.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba was forced to withdraw from a performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this month due to visa issues. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is the division of the Department of Homeland Security that decides whether or not to issue a petition approval notice, which is used by the State Department to issue visas to performers from abroad.

Is the department cracking down on cultural exchange and, if so, is it yet another example of the Trump administration's fixation on foreign nationals in the U.S.?

Not exactly, says Brandon Gryde, director of government affairs for both Dance/USA and Opera America. "It's certainly not a direct attack on the cultural community," he says. "We just get caught up in an overburdening of USCIS and in the increase of petitions, I think."

The two most common types of visas requested on behalf of touring dancers and companies require petitions that include extensive documentation, such as press clippings and marketing materials featuring the artist, support letters, plus an in-person interview at a consulate or embassy prior to entering the U.S.

The first, O-1B (or simply "O-1"), is for one individual "of extraordinary ability in the arts" seeking an opportunity to work in the U.S. The second, P-1B ("P-1"), is for foreign-based groups of two or more artists entering the country solely to perform. Both of these can be requested for a short period of time—a guesting gig or brief tour—or for a longer span, such as a 12-month contract with an American dance company. A third type of visa, known as P-3, may also be requested for culturally unique artists.

Olga Smirnova and Jacopo Tissi's visa petitions to perform at Youth America Grand Prix were denied earlier this year. Photo via Pictat

A time-consuming affair, assembling a petition is the responsibility of the U.S.-based employers, agents, managers, sponsors, presenters or organizers that are hosting the artists. Most experts today recommend starting the process at least six months early.

Three months into his presidency, Trump directed federal agencies to implement a "Buy American, Hire American" strategy, says Los Angeles–based immigration attorney Rachel Wool. "This included proposing new rules and guidance for preventing fraud," she explains. "The bar has risen for initial O-1 applications as well as renewals."

USCIS makes no distinction between petition requirements for dancers and those filed in more mainstream art forms like music or theater, which, generally speaking, may find it easier to garner press coverage. Precedent doesn't necessarily make much of a difference, either; Bereishit's performances at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 2016 obviously didn't grease the wheels around its return to the U.S. the following season.

If an organization gets nervous about the application taking too long, they might opt to pay a $1,225 fee for "premium processing," theoretically moving it into the fast lane. "As more people get worried about the turnaround time," Gryde explains, "more people pay for premium processing, which in turn slows down traditional processing time."

Add to that gridlock the fact that just two USCIS Service Centers process O- and P-type applications—one in California and the other in Vermont—and a nearly 7 percent increase in the number of O-1 visas issued from 2016 to 2017.

Northrop Dance Series' artistic director Christine Tschida estimates the total cost of each petition to be at least $5,000, not including additional legal consultation or all the staff time involved.

"The whole system is a kind of trap for the unwary," says Geoffrey Smith, former board chair at The Washington Ballet and a lawyer who has worked on visa petitions for ballet dancers and companies for four decades. "I'm a lawyer who does this for a living, and I've still made a lot of mistakes. The government isn't going to go out of its way to let you know that you've made a mistake or, for that matter, tell you how to fix it. One of the problems that we have with both the O and the P visas is that the forms you file for those are the same forms you file for a professional tennis or baseball player. USCIS tries to make one size fit all, which generates ambiguity. I might know that you should simply leave some answers blank, because it's completely inapplicable to dancers, but that takes experience."

Jon Ole Olstad says international dancers can end up paying thousands of dollars in legal fees to navigate the visa system. Photo by Erika Hebbert Larsen, courtesy Olstad

Jon Ole Olstad, 30, is a Norwegian citizen who's danced in the U.S. on an O-1 visa for three years. He made the decision to move to Brooklyn after leaving Nederlands Dans Theater and a brief stint in Rome with Esklan Dance Company. "There's a lot more opportunity here," he says. "More people, more dancers, more companies, more diverse institutions. You meet people from different cultures and that influences your work. That's certainly been inspiring to me."

It hasn't been cheap, however. Olstad says dancers in his shoes pay anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 for legal counsel, not including premium processing. "It costs about $350 just to collect and print all the materials you have to submit, which people don't often think about."

There is a solution on the table which, should it be signed into federal law, would significantly streamline this process: the Arts Require Timely Service Act. It's promoted by the Performing Arts Visa Working Group, which includes Dance/USA. "What the ARTS Act says is that, if USCIS does not adjudicate a petition for a nonprofit, arts-related organization within 14 days, then it would receive premium processing automatically," says Gryde. "That would be huge."

It isn't just the waiting game that's frustrating. Some say that, in the current system, the cards are stacked against the brief window of time professional dancers have to pursue their careers. For example, for P-1 petitions, one thing you have to prove is that 75 percent of the company has been working together for at least one year.

"It has always been difficult—much more difficult than it should be," says Tschida. "More byzantine and so much more expensive than it should be. And it has only gotten worse…but it's tremendously important that we share the work of other cultures, that we welcome other voices. It enriches the work of our own American artists."

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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