Jumping Through Immigration Hoops For Houston's Dancers

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At first glance the title seems to be a mistake -- "Immigration and the Performing Artist Workshop," with Maureen Donovan. What, are there lots of singers being smuggled into the country? Dancers buying counterfeit green cards?

Well, no. And yes.

The problem isn't that performing artists are being brought into the US hidden in the truck of a car (What do you think, Minute Men Against Web Back Ballerinas? That's catchy, right?)

The problem is that it's getting harder and harder for legitimate, well-respected arts companies to bring in guest artists from abroad. "Since 9/11 it's been quite a challenge to get artists in and out of the country," says Christina Giannelli, founder and executive director of Dance Source, a local non-profit organization supporting the arts, who organized the workshop with immigration attorney and former Boston Ballet dancer Maureen Donovan.

"There have been a lot of problems. We have a lot of dancers who are getting their education in Houston and wish to stay. We also have companies that would like to bring guest artists here." Giannelli tells Hair Balls -- although she doesn't remember any artists that were recently denied entry to the United States,

"There have been concerts and performances that were postponed or canceled due to visa problems the foreign artists have had. I know for Nancy Hendricks who presents Dance Salad, a huge amount of her effort and energy goes into securing those visas every year," she says.

Hendricks is bringing in more than a dozen companies from Germany, England, China, Norway and France for this year's concerts. With dancers, choreographers, students, technical staff, translators, artists' family and friends all needing visas, we're guessing Hendricks's car has the immigration office burned into its GPS.

"A few years ago Houston Ballet did have trouble with one dancer," says Giannelli. "And I know that a few years ago there was a dancer who trained at U of H and wanted to stay. We were trying to figure out how to help her stay and fortunately, she was in love and they got married so it turned out not to be a problem. But that was beginning to be something that we were all starting to worry about. She had come of age here, she wanted to stay and we wanted her to stay."

Giannelli says things are also dicey for American artists who want to perform outside of the country. "I'm going to England in a few weeks' time to do some work as a lighting designer, and I have to make sure that all my papers are correct. Otherwise you can arrive at immigration and they'll say, 'Oh, your papers aren't in order. You have to go back.' Houston Ballet, for example, brings in a lot of guest teachers from around the world. There's no doubt that the level of dancing at the Houston Ballet has improved enormously and a lot of that is due to the marvelous influences that the people are being exposed to."

And it's not just performers who are feeling the pinch. "There's also choreographers, seamstress, wig makers, composers, scenic designers, it's more than just who you see on stage," says Giannelli. "There's a huge amount of talent here in Houston, and all around the country, but it would be so sad if we couldn't share our expertise with the rest of the word, and benefit from the rest of the world. The arts are a way that we communicate ideas and emotions, and it's really important for people to be able to travel and work in other countries. As an artist, I want the experience of working aboard, as much as I want to work with artists from abroad here at home."

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