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.