'It's really heartbreaking': Indian artist's delayed visa forces show cancellation at Vancouver festival

Rakesh Sukesh, an artist with an Indian passport, couldn't get a visa to Canada in time for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. (Irene Occhiato - image credit)
Rakesh Sukesh, an artist with an Indian passport, couldn't get a visa to Canada in time for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. (Irene Occhiato - image credit)

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival says it's frustrated that visa delays forced it to cancel one of its upcoming shows in Vancouver.

Rakesh Sukesh, an Indian dancer and choreographer based in Belgium, was supposed to be in Vancouver on Jan. 8 for a two-week residency before he performed at the festival which begins Thursday.

He was collaborating with Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef on a piece about racism and microaggressions.

Sukesh, who has an Indian passport, applied for a visitor visa in August 2022 but has yet to be approved, according to PuSh director of operations Keltie Forsyth.

"It's really heartbreaking," Forsyth said. "It's really quite devastating for us."

Sukesh and Youssef's show was going to be about Sukesh's attempt to reconcile being a beloved artist in Europe who at the same time often experiences racism.

"It's also a show in which [Sukesh], who's a dancer, talks," Youssef told CBC News.

"It's a really big deal because he's attempting to speak about these things that he would never normally speak about in a performance."

Panorama Dance Theater
Panorama Dance Theater

Sukesh and Youssef had to work over Zoom for the past few months since Sukesh couldn't come to Canada.

"It's pretty heartbreaking — given the content, given how much I love the show — that it is an issue around visas for an artist with an Indian passport that has brought us to this point," Youssef said.

In a statement, Immigration, Refugees And Citizenship Canada said it can't comment on individual cases due to privacy legislation but that it has been working to reduce backlogs and process visitor visas more quickly.

"On a monthly basis, Canada is now processing more visitor visa applications than it did prior to the pandemic," spokesperson Jeffrey MacDonald wrote.

"Despite the progress we've seen, there is still much more to do in order to achieve pre-pandemic processing timelines."

Stifling diversity

Forsyth said PuSh is trying to work with more artists from regions such as Africa and Asia but long visa processing times are blocking those opportunities.

"These are already often artists who are maybe not as well funded by governments, as well supported to tour," she said.

Forsyth said a cohort of racialized and newcomer youth will also miss the chance to work with Sukesh.

She said while the show was meant to engage a wide audience about power, race and equity, it was also an opportunity for racialized people to feel heard and be represented.

"We're just really devastated to deliver the news that they're not going to be able to see the show, at least this iteration of the show this year," Forsyth said.

Forsyth said she hopes Sukesh is able to perform at the festival in the future.