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The Buzz, 9-24: Ballerina go home
No you can't work here any more

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

The problem is not unique. "Every time the subject of immigration is brought up with colleagues, they all have horror stories to share with me," says Marcello Angelini, artistic director of Tulsa Ballet. In Tulsa, the horror story for soloist René Olivier was that 10 years of dedicated work in the U.S. in which she proved her unique gifts -- our reviewer, Alicia Chesser, praised her "passionate subtlety" -- was not enough to convince the United States government to renew her green card.

The horror story extended to Olivier's husband, Sarkis Kaltakchian. Never mind that Angelini attested that his departure as head of faculty at the Tulsa Center for Dance Education would be a disaster; Kaltakchian, too, was denied a green card. (And never mind that both had letters of support from arts journalists across the country and local and state officials.) And so, the couple and their Tulsa-born baby had to leave behind their house and the lives they'd constructed, in effect, their home -- roots going back a decade -- and leave the country in August. A director had to scramble to replace a key dancer in multiple ballets a week before a crucial New York season, and try to find a new director and teacher for his school -- qualified and available candidates are rare -- and all for what reason? In theory, the argument would be that they're taking jobs from Americans. But a look not just at Angelini's company, but at any American company outside perhaps New York City Ballet shows that that today they are international. That's because in dance, a director has to be able to construct the best ensemble without geographic limits. And one of the only areas in which dance is rich in its resources is that because it is a non-verbal art, the director has that ability.

On a more fundamental level, the nightmare of the (effective, because if she can't work she can't stay) deportations of René Olivier and other international dancers is this juxtaposition: Green Card limits are part of an immigration policy which is based ultimately on fear -- fear of the other. Fear that the other represents a minus -- that he or she will take 'our' jobs. And yet, besides the universal truth that it is exactly immigration that has made our country so rich (never mind our art; what if Balanchine had been told to go home in 1942, after 10 years in the U.S.? -- which is not to compare one dancer with Balanchine but to high-light the waste that comes with expelling a dancer), what's truly horrifying about the (effective) deportations of dancers is that to oppose fear, their art gives us hope. And to this -- to the hope that René Olivier gave audiences in Tulsa and around the world for 10 years -- our country has responded by crushing hers. By telling her the devotion she put into her work -- isn't the U.S. supposed to be all about the Work ethic?; we all know the work ethos of dancers -- is not enough. And it has responded to her dancer's gift of inspiring us to dream with an act that negates that dream.

But there's a bigger issue here: 20 years ago this month, the Berlin Wall was toppled, and ever since, accelerating in the last eight years, nations have been constructing new walls. Art was one of the last terrains immune to this. By denying a green card to René Olivier, the U.S. government is effectively telling Marcello Angelini to stop looking for simply the best and instead, make hiring Americans the priority. What a loss it would be if the company was to cease being what our reviewer Gus Solomons jr called "a united nations of origins,' telling universal stories that know no borders.

And on an equally large scale: Some might say, Well, what do I care about a white ballerina? There are certainly immigrants who have it worse; it's not like she's going to be persecuted when she goes back to her native South Africa. Exactly. If this is what it's like for a white ballerina who not only hasn't been making any trouble for 10 years but has been doing nothing but inspiring people....

I know René Olivier. I've had the pleasure of seeing her work and catching the light in her eyes and that she transmits when she's dancing. And I can tell you this is someone who goes beyond the bounds of what's expected to excel at her art. That this is a dancer who, to borrow a phrase from the late Uwe Scholz, makes one's heart rotate. And now the U.S. has responded by breaking hers. 'Yes we can'? No you can't.

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