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Anne Bass, the director of Dancing Across Borders, is also responsible for it having a story to tell in the first place. Sixteen-year-old Cambodian Sokvannara Sar (better known by his nickname, “Sy”) was performing with his dance troupe in 2000 when he was spotted by the first-time documentarian and ballet patron (better known by her previous career, “socialite”). Bass became enchanted with Sy, whose performance she thought was “so full of fun and playfulness and joy.” So she contacted the world fund that helped sponsor Sy’s Cambodian troupe and encouraged it to persuade his teacher and impoverished parents to let Sy travel to the United States to audition for New York’s School of American Ballet. Which they did. So yay, right?
Except that Sy didn’t speak a word of English. And didn’t even know what ballet was. Bass describes meeting him at the airport: “I thought, ‘Oh, dear. He looks so, in a way, helpless!’ All of a sudden I thought, ‘Well, I guess he’s my responsibility now!’” The latter Bass says with a giggle and a crinkle of her nose, as if she’d adopted an overzealous puppy instead of ripped a boy from his home. And, in a way, you want to strangle her with her couture capris.
It takes a while, but things do get better for Sy—and, mercifully, for the viewer, as the irritating Bass pretty much drops out for the remainder of the film. Sy isn’t crazy about the idea of ballet and feels a bit duped, but he gives it a try anyway. The pros understand what Bass noticed in him but also had to face the reality that he’d be starting his training years late. Peter Boal, one of Sy’s instructors, was immediately drawn to his charisma as a dancer but ultimately turned him down: “There was this extraordinary combined with a complete lack of training.” Bass begged him to give Sy another chance in the fall, after arranging for a summer of private lessons with world-renowned instructor Olga Kostritzky. Next was a class with little kids, then more Olga: “I was just frustrated, and angry, and all the things you can think of,” Sy now comments in English, about not only the difficulty of the work but the added burden of a language barrier. And then the charm comes out as he adds that he doesn’t know how his instructor dealt with “all my crappy behavior.”
Dancing Across Borders eventually becomes the inspirational film you suspect it meant to be all along. It’s heartbreaking to hear Sy’s mother tell the story about how, at the age of 9, her son pleaded with her to take dancing lessons, but she refused because that would mean he could no longer work. (He took them anyway, and worked afterhours.) Sy’s opportunity to be taught by the best in New York quickly seems like a prison to a boy way over his head in terms of big-town bustle as well as the fact that it took him a few years to even like the art for which he was training. Even after he joins Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet (where Boal became artistic director) and was invited by the United States’ Cambodian ambassador to perform back home in 2006’s Celebration of American and Cambodian Music and Dance, Sy’s parents recognize the honor, but his father still comments that he’d prefer his son to be an engineer or doctor.
After four years in America, Sy finds friends and graduates high school (“Finally, I got to laugh at the white kids’ jokes!”) and continues to progress in his career and receive accolades. His performances included here are lovely, comic, and sometimes breathtaking. “I would have said it was a one in a thousand chance that this could work,” Boal remarks about what his reaction would have been had he heard of Bass’s idea before watching Sy dance. “And we found the one.”