Dancing Across Borders,” Anne Bass’ uneven docu debut, traces the fortunes of Cambodian ballet dancer Sokvannara “Sy” Sar from the time Bass first discovered him performing traditional temple dances at Angkor Wat to his conquests on the world stage. Account of a 16-year-old Third World ballet virgin bucking the odds barely rises to the level of most triumph-of-the-underdog sagas, although interest escalates dramatically with ample footage of Sar’s ballet training, attesting to his astoundingly rapid progress. Charismatic subject could attract ballet aficionados and novices in limited release.
Pic opens tritely with canned shots of rice paddies under treacly music and out-of-focus glimpses of Bass around Angkor Wat, pensively contemplating the ancient carvings. A socialite and New York City Ballet board member, Bass explains in self-congratulatory detail the “Blind Side”-like tale of how she was struck by Sar’s talent (illustrated with footage and photos of his temple dance) and paid for his flight to New York to audition for the NYCB school in 2000, fully assuming he would be accepted. Not surprisingly, given his lack of knowledge or experience, he was rejected. Bass then arranged for him to work in private with ballet teacher extraordinaire Olga Kostritzky, and her tapes of this crash course, stretching over three years, form the core and inspiration for her film.
As dance luminary Peter Boal puts it, ballet demands rigorous early training, and he places the odds of a 16-year-old beginner succeeding at about 1,000 to one. In addition to having to learn the totally foreign, incomprehensible art of ballet (he only slowly realizes that the bar isn’t an integral part of the dance), Sar also knows no English. Motivated by no abiding love for the form, he nevertheless spends months working with a relentlessly driving Kostritzky, enduring enormous physical pain and clocking in overtime hours at ballet classes, gradually learning to find joy in leaps and bounds.
The rich panoply of ballet on display includes Sar’s workouts, rehearsals, performances and appearances at various international venues, including a prestigious competition in Varna, Bulgaria, and a virtuoso solo turn at Vail to a Philip Glass piece, with Glass himself accompanying on piano. Perhaps his most intriguing stopover is at Phnom Penh, in a cross-cultural event televised throughout the country. His father, in attendance, professes his pride in his son, adding that he would have preferred him to be a government engineer. His mother, though thrilled, admits she understood nothing.