Dancing Across Borders

 Philip Glass and Sokvannara Sar at the Vail International Dance Festival, July 2008, photo by Erin Baiano 

What are the chances that a sixteen-year-old Cambodian boy with no classical ballet training gets invited to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet – all expenses paid – and then goes on to dance professionally at Pacific Northwest Ballet?  According to former New York City Ballet principal dancer Peter Boal, there’s a one in a thousand chance that it could work, and amazingly, it did.  In the feature-length documentary Dancing Across Borders, which opens on March 26th at the Quad Cinema, first-time film director and long-time arts patron Anne Bass captures Sokvannara (Sy) Sar’s journey from the Cambodian countryside to New York City, and eventually to the stage of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. 

Bass first saw Sy in January 2000 on a trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia.  He was performing in a temple with a traditional Cambodian dance group and left a strong impression on Bass.  With the help of the World Monuments Fund and an agreement from Sar and his parents, Bass arranged for Sy to come to New York and audition at the School of American Ballet (SAB).  Although he was not accepted – with no prior training, he was considered too old to begin studying there – SAB teacher Olga Kostritzky agreed to give Sy private lessons.  Dancing Across Borders began as a video record of Sy’s progress for Bass (who sponsored all of Sy’s training) to send to his parents back home, but after encouragement from friends, Bass developed it into a full-length documentary.   

Sokvannara Sar in Cambodia

The film includes footage from Sy’s training – SAB accepted him after a few months of studying with Kostritzky – that captures his remarkable improvement and painstaking persistence over the course of five years.  Interviews with former New York City Ballet dancers Peter Boal and Jock Soto, who taught Sy at SAB, spoke highly of his charm, stage presence, and captivating jumps in spite of having no classical background.  Excerpts from Sy’s performances in Balanchine’s La Source and La Sonnambula along with his solo in Benjamin Millepied’s On the Other Side at the Vail International Dance Festival reveal his refined technique and emotional maturity. 

In addition to being fully immersed in the world of ballet, Sy had to learn English and continue his schooling at the Professional Children’s School, where he received his high school diploma.  On camera, he seems charismatic, relaxed, curious, and eager to try anything that comes his way.  At the same time, he voices his struggle to identify his true home and uncertainty about where he belongs.  His family and childhood friends are in Cambodia, while his career and training are in the United States.  Bass seems aware of this conflict, too, and explained that it would have been okay for Sy to return to Cambodia if he was no longer interested in pursuing ballet.  Yet, the film does not explore their relationship in depth nor raise the possibility of Sy exploring interests outside of ballet.  In a way, his path in America was made clear for him from the start: classical ballet training with the goal of earning a place in a professional company.  It’s a rigorous world for anyone, let alone a foreigner coping with a language barrier, no prior training, and no family nearby. 

Bass gave Sy an incredible opportunity, and he embraced it with dedication and enthusiasm that were undoubtedly critical to his success and eventual spot in the corps de ballet of Pacific Northwest Ballet.  But it remains unclear whether he will be satisfied with dancing in America or instead prefer to return to his family in Cambodia.  At twenty-six, Sy has experienced two vastly different worlds.  The journey from one to the other is elegantly captured in Dancing Across Borders, but only Sy can decide where he belongs.

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9 Responses to Dancing Across Borders

  1. Lesley says:

    Sar’s very attractive! ; ) Can’t wait to see this movie.

  2. Marina says:

    And why exactly is this supposed to be a good thing? Would it not be equally difficult for a ballet dancer from New York to learn the discipline of, say, a centuries old dance form like that used in Kabuki, to a level where he could pass for a native? Would it ever have occurred to Anne Bass to use her influence to grow an appreciation of Sokvannara Sar’s original art in her own country instead of turning this beautiful young man into “Sy” the miracle ballet dancer? I’m astonished that nobody else has dared to say this!

  3. Evan says:

    Good point, Marina. As I mentioned in my review, Sy’s path in America is made clear from the start and there’s no explanation for why he couldn’t/didn’t explore things outside of ballet. It seems like Bass’s perspective was that Sy would be “wasted talent” if she didn’t bring him to the US to train in ballet, and that idea makes me a bit uncomfortable. It almost seems like she was more concerned about getting him to assimilate and fit in by learning ballet, rather than show his uniqueness by introducing his knowledge of Cambodian dance to Americans.

    Interestingly, Sy recently left Pacific Northwest Ballet and is figuring out his next move. His true feelings about ballet and living away from his family were not explored in depth in the film, but his hesitation and uncertainty were apparent. Bass clearly wanted to cultivate his talent in the art form that *she* knew and loved, but plucking Sy from his home and providing him with all of the training and financial support possible – especially at just 16 – may have been insensitive to his needs and what was best for him.

  4. Philip says:

    Sy says in the film that one of the major deciding factors in making the leap to America and to classical ballet was the hope that he would be able to help his family in Cambodia financially in ways he could never do as a traditional dancer at Angkor Wat.

    Sy reportedly said at a recent meet-and-greet that as soon as he made the decision to leave PNB he realized how much he missed it.

  5. Alex says:

    Anne Bass is a Vassar graduate and will be screening the movie at Vassar on the 31st. I’m excited to see the film and discuss the movie with her!

  6. Kelly says:

    We are the only ones who limit ourselves.., with focus, determination,hard work and discipline this is possible.

    This is really inspiring!

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  9. flo says:

    I found this film emotionally disturbing and exploitative at best! Seriously, did anyone ever think of the real interests of the young Sy? I’m with his dad … he would have been better off as an engineer or doctor.

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