When philanthropist Anne Bass visited Cambodia in 2000 on a human rights mission, she naturally attended a local dance concert. Bass—who founded a ballet company in Ft. Worth and sits on the board of the New York City Ballet, among others—is heavily involved in the world of Western dance. A poor, uneducated 16-year-old Khmer boy, Sokvannara "Sy" Sar, caught her eye. He had something, be it talent or presence, she couldn't quite tell. Returning to the States, Bass kept thinking about Sy (pronounced "see") and his abilities. She eventually brought him to America to learn ballet. Along the way, she learned how to be a filmmaker.
Bass' documentary of Sy's journey not only across the world but into the exacting and often incomprehensible-to-him world of ballet is captured in Dancing Across Borders, which she produced and directed. It screens July 29 in benefit for Elsie Allen High School, which is raising funds to attend the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Traditional Khmer dance celebrates the earth; traditional French ballet celebrates man's ability to transcend the mere ground. Sy, an affable, hard-working young man at least four years too old to begin serious balletic training, transcends it all. Dancing follows him as he arrives with no English skills and the burden of his impoverished family upon him, marking the transition as he eventually becomes a polished performer and, finally, a member of the NYC Ballet's corps, fluent in English and decidedly Western.
The film finally cycles back to Sy, now 26, and home on a visit. Dressed in an ironic hipster trucker's hat and designer jeans, he deftly uses a machete to strip leaves for a Khmer version of a paper airplane. He talks somewhat grimly of "luck" and its onus. He doesn't belong at home any more. He doesn't belong in America. He is something entirely other, now that Bass has formed him. He is—and it's almost really darn sad—an artist.
Dancing Across Borders screens on Thursday, July 29, at 7:30pm. A performance by classical Cambodian dancer and choreographer Charya Burt precedes. $20. Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.