“Dancing Across Borders” tells the moving story of Sokvannara (Sy) Sar, an exceptional human being who was discovered in Cambodia and brought to the ballet stage in America. Ashley Hillard caught up with the film’s director Anne Bass.
It was mentioned that you are originally from Fort Worth, Texas. Can you please tell me a little bit about your background, what brought you into dance and your journey to New York?
I actually grew up in Indianapolis, went to Vassar and lived in NY after graduation. When I was married to my former husband we lived in Fort Worth where I still have a house. I mainly split my time between New York and my farm in Connecticut. I studied ballet as a young girl and continued to study until I was at Vassar where there was only contemporary dance (which I also studied but did not love). Later, when my daughters started studying ballet, I began taking Adult ballet classes and still take a class every day.
What inspired you to want to bring ballet to Cambodia in particular?
I didn’t bring ballet to Cambodia; rather I brought a Cambodian to ballet. It is important to know that I only did this because Cambodian male dancers do not have much of a future in Khmer dance. The classical roles are all taken by women. Girls are divided at a young age into those that dance the female roles and those who dance the male roles. Males I am very interested in helping traditional Cambodian dancers, however, and some of my friends working with dancers in Cambodia have invited international choreographers to expand the dancers’ vocabulary. This works well with contemporary dance but not ballet because ballet training is so precise and proscribed.
What do you hope people will take away from this film?
I am often asked what I want people to take away from the film. Of course what they take away will in large part depend upon what they bring to it, but I hope that it inspires young people to persevere and believe in their dreams; that it makes the world of ballet more accessible and broadens the audience; and that it will inspire others to support talent when they see it no matter how modest or how great their resources may be. Finally I hope it will awaken a curiosity in Cambodia and other cultures that can teach us so much.
During the Q and A after the screening, Sy mentioned he left dance but is now going to return to it. Did you and Olga feel some measure of disappointment when he originally decided to quit, after all of the work and energy both of you committed to him?
In the late fall, Sy thought he wanted to quit dancing, and he resigned from Pacific Northwest Ballet. A long five weeks later he called and said that he thought he had been dancing for everyone but himself, his family, his country, his teachers, and of course me; and he said that he wanted to “do what he wanted to do.” However, having quit dancing, he realized how much he missed it and that he had been doing what he wanted to do all along. It was a painful period for him, but I think he has learned a lot from the experience and has a strong renewed commitment to dancing.
Of course Olga and I felt disappointment but more than that we felt concern that he would not continue to develop in an art form in which he excelled. In the end I felt he would do what was best for him and that he needed to work through some things on his own, and that is exactly what happened.
The film goes into Sy’s experiences adjusting to life in the US, but I’d like to know more about how he has adapted to the language and culture? Has it changed him as a person?
From my vantage point Sy has a much broader understanding of the world. Not only has he done well in ballet but he graduated from high school with honors and has completed some college courses. He had quit school in Cambodia to work with his mother in the market and help support his family. I think he is pleased and surprised by his abilities.
Now that Sy has decided to return to dance, will it be harder for him to find a dance company since he left before?
It is quite usual for dancers to move from company to company over the course of their careers. Many enjoy the challenge of working with different artistic directors choreographers and repertoires.
What is the average age that a dancer usually retires from a company and does this affect Sy’s career goals since he started when he was older?
The average male dancer retires when he is around 40. I really don’t know if starting later will mean Sy will dance a longer or shorter time than is normal.
Nureyev, who is the only dancer that I know started so late (in his case at 17) danced until he was 50.
Do you feel ballet may become more popular with audiences and potential dancers after this film is released?
It seems that some Americans think that ballet is an elite and inaccessible art form. A few days ago, a fellow documentary film maker wrote to me after he had seen the film “I loved every minute, and I discovered a new world–and worlds within worlds. . . I know nothing about dance, and I now want to know much, much more, and to see much more. Brava! “If my film helps open the world of ballet to people and makes it more accessible to them that will give me great satisfaction.
What impact does a star dancer have on ballet overall?
A star dancer inspires other dancers and rewards an audience. The great stars of ballet have created entire generations of dance fans. Think of the impact that Nureyev and Baryshnikov have had on ballet.
Do you feel that Sy’s story will affect the perception of men participating in ballet?
Sy’s story could affect the way men are perceived as dancers. He is so obviously a “guy” and looks at ballet like an athlete as well as an artist. In the film one is able to see the challenges and rigor of ballet and perhaps this will help the general public appreciate the incredible achievement of becoming a professional dancer.