The purpose of art is to give flight to the soul; to make us think, at least for a moment, only about the beauty of which mankind is capable, not about the suffering or pain that can also come from our hands. This is precisely what Dancing Across Borders, a documentary about Cambodian ballet dancer Sokvannara “Sy” Sar, achieves. From a society scarred by genocide comes a dancer whose grace teaches us, too, how to soar.
Anne Bass is both filmmaker and instigator in Sar’s journey from a children’s cultural dance troupe in Angkor Wat to a quick learner at the School of American Ballet in New York to a ballet genius at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. This film is her — and especially his — experience of that journey.
The footage spans years, half the lifetime of the young man. The film opens with Sar in Cambodia discussing dance, and his intensely charming personality and boyish handsomeness are immediately apparent. Viewing the video of Sar performing traditional Cambodian dances, it is no wonder Bass saw something special enough in this young man to warrant sponsoring his move to America.
One of the most elucidating segments is the interview with Sar’s parents and Cambodian dance teacher. There is not the slightest tinge of the “stage mom” attitude here; rather, his parents speak of balancing the need to eat with Sar’s desire to dance — and his teacher explains that she opened the school for traditional dance after her parents were murdered by Pol Pot. There is a sacredness to dance in the traditional Cambodian context, and this is a value that Sar carries inside of him, and which all dancers — truly, all artists — would benefit from remembering.
Yet, Sar’s arrival at the School of American Ballet is not immediately lauded. In fact, it is here that the pressure starts, a far cry from his childhood dancing for pleasure. He is sixteen years old: much too old to begin learning ballet and expect to make a successful career of it. He does not speak English. The teachers question whether it is even worthwhile to let him into the school; they say he has no idea how to do some of the moves. But then he pulls out an assemble jump that is unlike any they have seen. In the end, they too see that special spark of a boy who loves movement, who sees something more than simply manipulated muscles in the moves, and they acquiesce to Bass’s insistence that he will make an outstanding ballet dancer.
Once admitted to the school, Sar is subjected to intense one-on-one training with the boys’ ballet teacher, Olga Kostritzky. The viewer has the pleasure of seeing Kostritzky and Sar discussing the footage of these classes, which show how incredibly quickly he progresses through the fundamentals of ballet, never losing his incredible capability for gentleness and power, for emotional expressiveness in every move and a face that electrifies a room.
Yet, there are times when Sar questions whether such intensity is taking the joy out of dance for him; why he is working so hard to become a ballet dancer when he frankly does not care for ballet. It raises an interesting question about talent versus passion, and how we decide in what ways to spend our lives. But, it is hard to imagine, as you watch how stunningly and emotionally he dances, that he does not love it, and in the end, he embraces ballet with his heart as well as his body.
Once it becomes clear that Sar is indeed an exceptional young ballet dancer, the viewer joins him on an exciting joy ride of international performances and competitions. First, Sar is invited to perform in his homeland of Cambodia to celebrate the opening of the American embassy. Clips of his performance show him defying gravity as he practically hovers mid-leap and the pride, amazement, and joy of his countrymen and family upon seeing him perform this incomprehensibly foreign but wondrous form of dance. It is interesting to watch Sar settle into this new world in which he is neither Cambodian nor American, but something in between. It is even more exciting to watch him thrive in that in-between space.
He then goes on to the Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria, at which he only makes it to the semi-finals, but causes a splash by being the first Cambodian ballet dancer they have ever seen. His performance here was beautiful, but the shots of the other male competitors show others who dance captivatingly with equal vigor and gracefulness. But it is Sar into whose life we have been admitted and who is the definition of dancing with heart, so of course we are disappointed when he does not win.
But by this point he is clearly destined for greatness, so the viewer need not worry about his future. It seems incomprehensible that anyone would be able to overcome the language and training barrier to succeed in one of the most insular fields in the world, but he has: and we all smile for him. He knows how great it feels to jump higher and land softer, and we feel that pleasure in the abilities and artistry of the body along with him.
One of the best aspects of the Dancing Across Borders DVD are the full-length dances by Sar included in the bonus features. These performances include Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux, Square Dance, La Sylphide, Coppelia, La Sonnambula, and Mopey, many with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. But the most phenomenal performance is On the Other Side, a dance choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (great last name for a dancer) to music composed and performed by Phillip Glass. You know that you are watching a revolution; that Sar and art are somehow fundamentally changing right before your eyes in this piece. For that matter, you too change in the watching of it.
I would be selling Dancing Across Borders short if I said it was a heartwarming documentary about overcoming obstacles to success when no one thought it was possible. Sure, it is that, but it is also much more. It is a film about art and what it means to be an artist. It is performance as love; as freedom; as hope. It is discovering the body’s full range of motion in order to learn the amazing capabilities of the human soul. In short, it is discovering the power of dance, of art, to express how meaningful it is to be alive.