October 3, 2023

Sy Sar dance to a piece written and performed by Phillip Glass, as seen in Dancing Across Borders. (Photo by Erin Baiano – First Run Features)

Dancing Across Borders, a First Run Features film produced and directed by Anne Bass in her documentary film debut with Catherine Tatge, opens May 21 at Landmark’s Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.

Dancing Across Borders (www.firstrunfeatures.com) chronicles the intimate and triumphant story of a 16-year-old boy from Angkor Wat, Cambodia named Sokvannara “Sy” Sar. Immensely moved by his amazing natural charm and grace as a dancer, filmmaker Anne Bass decided to bring Sy to the ballet stage in America.

A longtime patron of dance in the U.S., she arranged for Sy to visit New York and audition for the prestigious School of the American Ballet. What unfolds is a tentative negotiation between Sy and the world of American ballet and culture – from the serene countryside of Southeast Asia to the halls of SAB, to the stage of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

“Perhaps most of all I hope that some people who come to the film with no feeling for ballet might develop an interest in dance from seeing the film,” states Bass in the production notes. “Beyond this of course, what people will take away from the film will to a large extent depend upon what they bring to it.

“I hope that there is enough there to ensure that when people who bring their own individual histories and sensibilities to the film see it, they will enjoy the experience, and also will be moved by it in different ways and on different levels.

Bass said she would be pleased if the film has the effect of encouraging young people to pursue and achieve goals of their own.

The film follows Sy’s unusual development as a dancer and offers a remarkable behind-the-scenes look into the world of American ballet. At its heart, Dancing Across Borders is an extraordinary story of growth, adaptation, and belonging as well as of the development of talent and the mastery of an art form.

The film begins as Anne Bass is on a trip to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia in January 2000. Sar was performing in a temple with a traditional Cambodian dance group when Bass saw his abilities, and his amazing natural charm and grace as a dancer compelled dance patron to give the boy an opportunity to follow a dream that he could not yet fully imagine.

From the serene countryside of Southeast Asia to the halls of New York’s School of American Ballet to the stage of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Dancing Across Borders peeks behind the scenes into the world of dance and chronicles the intimate and triumphant story of a boy who was discovered, and who only much later discovered all that he had in himself.

After much deliberation she asked the World Monuments Fund, who helped sponsor Sy’s dance troupe, to contact his teacher and parents to see if Sy would like to visit America and audition in New York for the School of American Ballet which is considered America’s premier ballet training academy. What unfolds is a tentative negotiation between Sy and the world of American ballet culture – and between Sy, Bass, and his new dance teacher, Olga Kostritzky.

At sixteen Sy was already considered old to study ballet, and so trained privately for two years with Kostritzky, the head of the boys program at SAB. Kostritzky first worked with Sy in a private studio, helping him catch up with his peers – most of whom had already been training for at least six years. A few months after beginning his training, Sy entered SAB where he studied for five years. Then, Peter Boal, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and one of Sy’s instructors at SAB, became the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and invited Sy to join PNB School’s Professional Division.

The first time that Sy performed ballet in Cambodia was when he was invited to be part of a theatrical performance of Cambodian and American artists to celebrate the rededication of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. A few months later he was coached by Kostritzky for the International Ballet Competition at Varna, Bulgaria, the world’s oldest and most prestigious ballet competition, where he reached the semifinals. Eventually, Sy was asked to be an apprentice and to join the corps de ballet at PNB.

The film follows Sy’s training and development as a dancer through footage that was originally made to inform his parents of his progress in America, and it offers a view behind the scenes of the world of ballet. There is also extensive footage of his performances for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, and the competition in Varna and as a company member with PNB in Seattle and at the Vail International Dance Festival. Many people who have aided Sy since he left Cambodia are also interviewed and they include former Cambodian Ambassador to the US, Roland Eng; founder of the Nginn Karet Foundation, Ravynn Karet-Coxen; and the founder and director of AMRITA, Fred Frumberg.

In addition the film follows Sy as he visits his parents and his old school of Khmer dance, and as he attempts to come to terms with the challenge of adapting to a new country while not losing touch with Cambodia. His story is one of growth, adaptation, and belonging as well as of the development of talent and the mastery of an art form. It is hoped that his story will be an inspiration to all young people and especially those of Cambodia as they struggle to regain their identity and hope for a better future following the lingering upheaval of the Khmer Rouge era.

Bass has history of involvement in the arts and Cambodia, and is Vice President of the Board of the Center for Khmer Studies – the only Southeast Asian member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.

In 2006, working with the Center and with The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, Bass initiated the Khmer Dance Project to identify existing documents relating to Khmer dance, to document on film the dance of the Khmer people as it is practiced and remembered by Khmer dancers today. It is meant to preserve the Khmer dance heritage for future generations and bring this heritage to a global audience.

Bass is a graduate of Vassar College and is a former contributing editor of Vogue and House and Garden. In addition, she was a member of President Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts.

She has also served on the Board of Directors and Executive Committees of the Fort Worth Ballet where she founded the company’s ballet school, New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. She is also on the board of the American Friends of the Paris Opera Ballet.