“I used to fish,” says Sokvannara Sar at the start of Dancing Across Borders. The camera offers views of rice paddies and a glistening river’s surface. “To dance the dance is like to fish in the rice field with other people,” he continues, “because that’s what we do: we fish and we talk with friends.” “Sy’s” memories of growing up in rural Cambodia slip into memories of dancing. As a child, he showed remarkable gifts while performing Cambodian traditional steps, including the “fisherman’s dance.” Filmmaker Anne Bass remembers seeing him perform a duet: “He was very flirtatious, his spirit was so full of fun and playfulness and joy.”
She was mystified and moved, she says, so moved that she determined this brilliant young talent should be applied elsewhere. A well-known Manhattan patron of the arts, Bass narrates her decision to bring Sy to the United States, so he could study ballet. “He moved very naturally,” insists Bass, “His body was perfect… He was just a dancer. This image of him and his spirit kept coming back to me.” She sees her own efforts as a sort of salvation. “Cambodian dancers, especially male dancers,” she laments, “Don’t have much of a future. How sad it would be to leave that talent unrealized.” And so she finds a way to bring him to the States, to realize his talent.
As the film intertwines their stories, old footage and photos show him at the Wat Bo School, where his teachers appreciated his gifts as well as his limits (“Because of Sy’s small size, I assigned him the role of the monkey,” smiles one teacher”). Today, a handheld camera follows Bass and Sy through imposing ruins in Angor Wat, where he once performed. “Do you remember some of the things about your dance?” she leads him. “There is no setting,” he begins. “But it’s perfect,” she adds. He remembers that he was supposed to emerge from behind a pillar: “You can’t really hide,” he observes, “But I just pretend to be hiding.”
All performance is a form of hiding, of course, or maybe pretending to hide. As much as dance allows self-expression, it is also a way to hide, at once imagining and disguising a self, whether the terms are ritual or unusual. For Sy, being selected and financed by a nice white lady was a mixed blessing, fraught with difficulties beyond the obvious physical rigors — the years of training, the daily grinding. The documentary is also something of a mix, focused on Sy’s dedication and his brilliance (extolled by his teachers and Bass, repeatedly), but also revealing his extraordinary emotional and spiritual efforts. Suddenly immersed in a wholly alien culture, he’s distressed even as he’s thrilled, homesick as he’s enchanted.
Bass remembers seeing him alight from the plane for the first time, after her months of effort. “I thought, ‘Oh dear. He looked so, in a way, helpless. I guess he’s my responsibility now.'” It’s unclear whether her thinking then was so narrowly self-involved, or whether she’s also performing or hiding a self. But the film she’s made is oddly revealing — of her own ideas, of the assumptions of privilege, even of the condescension that patronage can create — even as it extols the results of her efforts. Working with Olga Kostritsky (who also taught Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jock Soto), Sy devotes himself to learning the strange new dance (he’d never even seen ballet before he left home), as well as a new language and new life customs, “a system of etiquette, even,” observes Peter Boal, now artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. “I hope he’s going to be what I want him to be,” Olga notes earnestly.
It’s a couple of years before Sy can enroll in a class with other students at the School of American Ballet in New York. All are something like a decade younger than he is. He towers over them, but never complains — at least not on camera. He will be able to support his family, he insists, and do what he might love at the same time. “I didn’t really understand English,” he says. His teachers “were telling me a couple of things to do. I try to copy them, but had no idea how the steps [are] supposed to be, because I had never seen ballet before.”
While Dancing Across Borders doesn’t examine every facet of Sy’s difficult education, focused as intently as it is on his dancing, it does offer him chances to speak, in the language he learns in order to dance in the U.S. and from there, become an international star — to dance “across borders.” “I look at things different,” he says. “This perception stays in my mind and keeps growing until it makes me a completely different being.” Aware of his ever in-between status, he asserts, “I really don’t know where I belong. At the same time, it’s really fun, you know, kind of go back and forth, see the world, you know.”