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.
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.