For Russian Performers, Trapeze Skills May Be Ticket to Landing U.S. Residency

September 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
An obscure piece of immigration law targets uniquely talented individuals who want to live in the United States. University of California, Berkeley students Lauren Rosenfeld and Caroline Bins explore how it could help some Russian performers in Las Vegas gain permanent residency thanks to their rope and trapeze talents.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, another of our occasional reports from journalism students around the country.

This one explores a little-known piece of immigration law aimed at uniquely talented individuals who want to stay in the United States.

Lauren Rosenfeld and Caroline Bins at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Journalism are the producers.

Lauren tells the story.

LAUREN ROSENFELD, University of California, Berkeley: Las Vegas, Sin City, a mirage of neon lights in the middle of the Nevada desert and a mecca for circus artists. It attracts extraordinary talent from around the world, especially from Russia, where gymnasts and acrobats are rock stars.

And clowning is not just clowning. For Oleg Donolov (ph), it’s an art form.

WOMAN: This is an American school.

MAN: And Russia like — it’s a true story.

WOMAN: There were a lot of feelings in it, in the Russian school.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: Oleg is what the Russians call a musical clown. He and his wife, Tatiana (ph), came to Las Vegas with the Russian ice show, which eventually closed.  

WOMAN: But there is a saying. The circus left while the clown stayed here.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: But Oleg might have to leave America. His only hope is to qualify for either an extraordinary or exceptional ability visa. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security issued more than 3,000 of these immigrant visas to acclaimed scientists, athletes and artists.

Oleg’s immigration attorney helped him apply.

MAN: So, we submitted an application. We got a request for evidence. And we have responded to it. But what I want to do…

LAUREN ROSENFELD: The application is a shoo-in if the petitioner has an Oscar or Olympic medal. Without such a major award, Oleg must meet at least three criteria outlined by Homeland Security that prove he’s an asset to the United States.

MAN: OK. Now that you have shown exceptional ability, can you also show that your immigration is in the national interest, that the benefit that you will bring in to the United States will spread from East to West Coast; it’s going to be national in scope?

LAUREN ROSENFELD: Oleg thinks he has what it takes.

MAN (through translator): “I can help a lot of Americans to become more professional, music-eccentric, and to expand their abilities.”

LAUREN ROSENFELD: Many Russians like Igor Zaripov have obtained this visa. He represents the best of a circus tradition that goes back more than two centuries.

IGOR ZARIPOV: I grew up in a circus in Russia, in Circus Femule (ph). I’m the fifth generation. With Circus Femule (ph), we are based on horses. So, all generation was training horses.

Me and my sister the only one who left our tradition from horses and start to learn something new, explore something different. I decided to be an aerialist and my sister is a contortionist. So, that’s how I started.

I’m the aerial gymnast on straps. So, basically, I’m holding the rope. I push myself in the air. And once I did it, I did a double twist. Nobody in the world does it yet. I had to prove to America what — I am one of the best in what I do.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: To prove his extraordinary ability, Igor’s attorney sent immigration authorities photos of him flying, his many awards, newspaper clippings and expert testimony. His talent got him a green card.

IGOR ZARIPOV: You became a part of this country. You actually live here and have a green card that gives you an opportunity to make a living easier.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: Igor came to America on a temporary contract with the circus, but steady employment allowed him to put down roots in Las Vegas, where he met his wife, Maryna, in a show.

MARYNA TKACHENKO, aerial gymnast: In the show, like we are supposed to fall in love. So, in the act, we fall in love. And, actually, we fall in love in the real life.


IGOR ZARIPOV: Here we are in the past. Family, new baby.


IGOR ZARIPOV: Happy. Hopefully, when she deliver the child, we will try to work — start work again together. So, we will see.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: Igor may not be a rocket scientist or a Nobel Prize winner, but the U.S. government found his abilities exceptional enough to be in the national interest.

Sergey Duman is a talented performer who didn’t get an extraordinary ability visa.

SERGEY DUMAN, former trapeze artist: I fly in the air. I do the tricks in the air. I flip myself with something crazy, finish it, and making the people happy.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: Sergey holds the world’s record for the longest flying trapeze act, but he didn’t meet Homeland Security’s criteria. He finally got a green card after marrying a U.S. citizen. And now he coaches gymnastics.

SERGEY DUMAN: I was — didn’t thinking about (INAUDIBLE) within the United States. I was told I’m going to work my two years’ contract, make some money and come on back at home. But I love United States. I love to live here.

I stopped doing circus show because I want to coach kids. I have friends, performers from Russia. And them kids go on to my classes.

Don’t fly away.

I would love to see them flying in the air. I would love to see them flip, give them what I love to do, what I used to do, you know?

LAUREN ROSENFELD: For Dasha Shamanskaya, the green card she got by proving her extraordinary ability is an insurance policy. Without it, her injury could mean a one-way ticket back to Russia.

DASHA SHAMANSKAYA, trapeze artist: At this moment right now, you know, I’m injured. I just had two shoulder surgeries. You realize one day, you know, you can’t continue doing this all your life. And it’s really, really hard to even think about that, because this is your passion. This is what you love doing.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: But the injury has forced Dasha to think about life after the circus, a passion she’s had since childhood.

DASHA SHAMANSKAYA: That’s how, you know, they find talent in Russia. They come to kindergarten and they look for kids. When they came, I was so happy. I was like, you know, I’m going to be a gymnast.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: She decided to trade the bars for the trapeze, which got her to America and a job Cirque du Soleil.

DASHA SHAMANSKAYA: They basically offered me another contract doing aerial stuff here in Las Vegas for a Love Beatles show. And I said yes, like, I didn’t even think twice. I’m doing a contortion type of act on the rope. It’s very calm. And it’s a role for a girl. There is no safety. There’s no net under you. It’s basically — it’s just you and the rope.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: No matter what happens to Dasha, her extraordinary ability visa will guarantee she gets to stay in Las Vegas. But Oleg is still in limbo.

WOMAN: If you have all the legal papers and if you really mean something, you can live a brilliant life here.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: But if Oleg doesn’t qualify?

MAN (through translator): I will say good buy to America.

LAUREN ROSENFELD: For the Russians who do manage to stay in Las Vegas, life is about more than tricks on a rope or ice skating in a clown costume. It’s about bringing a proud tradition from one country to another, where the pay is better, the audiences are bigger, and the future often looks brighter.