Britain's stages to close to outsiders

Immigration changes would deprive audiences of the world's greatest dance stars. By Andrew Johnson
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Britain's leading contemporary dance companies have expressed dismay over stringent Home Office immigration proposals that will make it almost impossible for dancers from outside the European Union to perform in the UK.

While classically trained ballet dancers – such as the Cuban Carlos Acosta – look likely to be exempt from the new regulations, contemporary dancers will not be.

It means audiences for leading contemporary dance companies such as Rambert or Sadler's Wells and even West End shows such as The Lion King – which featured international dancers – will lose out.

There is growing concern that the proposed regulations will affect all corners of the arts world, from theatre to dance. Last month three musicians were unable to enter the UK to perform at the world music festival Womad.

While ballet is likely to be classed as an occupation with a shortage of workers – making it easier for foreign dancers to gain a visa – Nadia Stern, chief executive of the Rambert Dance Company, says the same exemption is not likely to be extended to other dancers.

"We are a world-class dance company and we need to recruit the best in the world," she adds. "We cannot just recruit from the UK and the European Union. If we cannot recruit from the rest of the world our standards will drop. There's a proposal whereby ballet dancers will be designated as a shortage of labour, and we need the same designation. I understand it's a difficult issue, but a quarter of our dancers come from outside the EU. Once a dancer comes here we need them to stay – we invest a huge amount in training and we have 10 shows that run over three years, so we need them to be here."

A spokesman adds that the company aims to reflect the diversity of London's streets – impossible to do with a stage of white faces.

Under the planned regulations, anyone wanting to work in the UK from outside the EU would have to have a biometric passport and gain sufficient points to be classed as a foreign worker.

The arts world argues that this makes it impracticable to fill roles at short notice due to illness – especially if the star pulls out and an internationally renowned replacement is required. The collection of biometric data is time-consuming in developing countries.

The Arts Council is also worried about the impact of the proposals, which some estimate could affect 30,000 performers. In a letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is examining the new rules, Alan Davey, chief executive of the Arts Council, wrote: "Cultural exchange on an international level is vital for this country. As well as invigorating and strengthening our economy through tours and performances at national and regional venues, international artists help our own cultural workers to develop and learn ... adding to the richness of our own cultural output."

Suzanne Walker, director of programming at Sadler's Wells, says the cultural exchange works both ways, with British dancers gaining experience abroad.

"The cross-fertilisation of skills and cultural experience enabled by this sort of exchange is hugely important for the health and quality of dance [in] the UK. Dance is one of the most diverse of art forms, and at Sadler's Wells we embrace it in its widest context," she says. "All dancers, whether flamenco, tango, ballet or contemporary dance, to name just a few, experience the same levels of rigorous training, and we certainly agree that contemporary dance should receive equal visa concessions."

A Home Office spokesman says the new regulations are still under review and no decision has yet been taken.

The Lion King

The hit West End show has been running in London since 1999. It has a cast of more than 40 actors and dancers, many of whom are recruited from South Africa and the Caribbean, as well as Europe and the UK.

Ballet Ratakan

Performed in the stunning music and dance show 'Havana Ratakan', showcasing the rhythms and moves of Cuba. It played to packed audiences in the UK this year.

Rambert Dance Company

One of the world's leading contemporary dance companies, based in London. A quarter of the company come from outside the EU,including the Venezuelan-born Virginia de Gersigny, who is classically trained, with Joseph Caley.

Afrika! Afrika!

Billed as the African answer to Cirque de Soleil, 'Afrika! Afrika!' featured 100 performers from 17 countries, showcasing African skills in dance, circus and acrobatics.

Tavaziva Dance

Led by the Zimbabwe-born Bawren Tavaziva and based in London, the critically acclaimed company includes a wide range of nationalities, including dancers from the UK and Africa.