Beautiful dancing and strong stories are hampered by a lack of personal exposition

Dancing Across Borders

on March 25, 2010 by Ed Scheid
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Dancing Across Borders follows a remarkable journey from the fields of Cambodia to ballet stages around the world. Sy, the young man who is the subject of the documentary, left Cambodia for New York much older than usual for beginning ballet training, and after only recently seeing a ballet. In her first film, Anne Bass, who brought Sy to America, uses a conventional style. Dancing lacks probing interviews to highlight the tremendous cultural change, but Sy remains an engaging focus point and there are numerous performance sequences that ably demonstrate his growing accomplishments. Interest in his unusual story should build, particularly among dance aficionados and groups interested in Asian culture.

In 2000, dance patron Anne Bass, the film’s director, saw Sokvannara (Sy) Sar performing with other young dancers in a Cambodian temple. She was struck by Sy’s playfulness and joy. Sensing immense talent and knowing that there is not much of a future for dancers in Cambodia (particularly males), Bass invited Sy to audition in New York at the School of American Ballet (SAB), considered the premiere American ballet training academy. Until Bass sent a tape of a performance, Sy had never seen a ballet. Coming from a poor family, Sy had determinedly studied traditional dance. Beautifully shot scenes of quiet rural Cambodia show the life Sy leaves behind when he travels to New York.

At almost 17, Sy was significantly older than the usual starting age range for ballet training (commonly, students begin before 8 years of age). For two years, Sy trained privately with Olga Kostritzky, on the faculty of SAB. Bass took photos and videos of Sy’s sessions with Olga for Sy’s mother in Cambodia. Sy speaks humorously of walking like a duck after his training sessions, while Olga more seriously describes their early sessions as like “torture” for them both. She, Bass and others speak of Sy’s problems in cultural adjustment, but without significant comments from Sy, the film lacks a deeper insight into his own feelings on the amazing changes in his life. The film is also limited by Sy’s being shown with contemporaries only in class or on stage, not in personal interaction.

Sy’s unique story remains absorbing as he makes enormous progress after starting classes with much younger students. His persistence is impressive. A teacher said he had a 1/1000 chance of success. Sy has a likable personality. From the beginning, he is called a natural performer who knows how to project from stage. Dancing includes Sy’s athletic ballets around the world with increasing acclaim, including a return home for the dedication of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. After another performance, he takes a curtain call with Philip Glass who played piano while Sy danced. After receiving a positive response to showing friends various footage of Sy, Bass saw the potential for a film. Closing credits include visually striking images combining scenes of Cambodia with Sy’s dancing, highlighting his difficult cultural adventure.

Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Anne Bass
Producers: Anne Bass and Catherine Tatge
Genre: Documentary
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: March 26 NY, April 2 Exp.

Tags: documentary, Anne Bass, dancing, Asian, Sokvannara Sar, Sy Sar, ballet, Cambodia
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