Bass | Sar's Two Step in 'Dancing Across Borders'

The New York reviews are out on ‘Dancing Across Borders’.

Dancing Across Borders

Prior to Wednesday night’s packed Manhattan opening, the NYTimes previewed the story with Patron Turns Home Movies Into a Feature.

Anyone who has ever even heard of Anne Bass, knows that she has a passion for dance.  Watching ‘Dancing Across Borders’, I thought of Helen Mirren playing ‘The Queen’.

This is not to suggest that the two films are cut from the same velvet curtain, because they are not. But a pervasive restraint floated above the action and dialogue in ‘Dancing Across Borders’, making it perfectly choreographed but somewhat lacking in emotional connection in what was a far more tumultuous story than presented on the screen.

Anne Bass and her protege Sokvannara Sar, the dancer she discovered in Cambodia 10 years ago..I wondered if in the totality of the endless footage of her young ballet star Sokvannara Sar, he ever had a fit. Caught in the sincere dreams of an American heiress with a deep love of men flying high on the ballet stage, did Sy (rhymes with ‘we’) ever erupt in anything less than a minor pout of toe-stomping defiance over his new life.

Discipline and Restraint

Did this magnetic boy-wonder dancer, discovered by Ms Bass on a World Monuments Fund trip to Cambodia in 2000, ever turn on his benefactor and his devoted ballet teacher Olga Kostritzky, throwing the plate against the wall, so to speak.

Anne Bass acknowledges the isolation that Sy must have felt, arriving in America with no friends or family. Luckily, he traveled north of the city to dine regularly with a regular-acting family from Cambodia. He speaks of isolation and embarassment and loneliness, not only being a non-English-speaking  foreigner in America,  but also leaving a culture where he had a small amount of star status as a dancer at Preah Khan, the 12th-century jewel of a complex in Angkor.

In America’s classical ballet culture, Sy was old at 16 for admission to the School of American Ballet and behind the curve in Western ballet techniques.

Filled with high potential, he nevertheless found himself with the young kids, as he worked to perfect his skills and make up for lost time. In spite of the Anne Bass imprint and influence, Sy wasn’t initially accepted into SAB.

Bass had brought photos of the 16-year-old Sar to SAB’s offices, but hadn’t mentioned his age to Peter Boal, who was teaching men’s classes at SAB. Boal says he trusted Bass’ eye for dance, but after he and colleague Jock Soto gave Sar his first ballet audition, they were skeptical. The audition “wasn’t a disaster,” Boal says. “He was handsome and well proportioned and he had great elevation. But he was untrained, and we had the language problem. The level of a 16-year-old was just not there.” via Ballet Scene | Culture Shock

Although Sar had dance experience and knew how to charm an audience and respond to music, Boal says, launching him into a professional ballet career was “a one-in-a-million shot.”

Contemporary Cultural Fusion

The idea of cultural colonialism simmers in this website, and I would be remiss not to raise it.

One of the key questions of the film ‘Dancing Across Borders’ is whether Sokvannara Sar is dancing for himself, his family, for Bass, his nation, his teacher — we never really learn the answer, although both Sy and Bass address the topic, always with restraint.

Bass says she was committed to Sy’s total person, making it clear that she would send him to university for another career, if that’s what he wanted. Yet, the endless footage of his lessons leaves no doubt that Sy was an Anne Bass project in the making.

The ‘Dancing Across Borders’ movie also became a Bass project. The producer originally signed the Emmy-winning documentary maker Catherine Tatge to direct.

“As we were working,” Ms. Tatge said by phone, “it became clear than Anne had really been living and breathing this story, had spent a long time nurturing Sy.” Ms. Tatge stepped into a more advisory role as co-producer, and Ms. Bass took over as director.

Three years and $700,000 later, Ms. Bass said, “I surprised myself with how much I was engaged by the process.” via NYTimes

I was surprised to read in a recent New York Magazine interview with Anne Bass that posed this question and response:

You’ve referred to yourself as a perfectionist. How did you feel when he temporarily dropped out of ballet last fall?

It was really hard to be a spectator. At the end of November, he thought he wanted to quit dancing. When I got the call, I was at a film festival. I cried all night. But then I watched the film, and I thought, You know what, this boy is so wonderful and he has such good character, he is going to be fine no matter what. About five weeks later, he called and said, “I just realized that I thought I had been dancing for other people. I thought I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Then I realized I had been doing what I wanted to do all along.”

Now we know. Sy did throw the metaphorical plate against the wall.

A key theme of Anne of Carversville is natural human sensuality and beauty, one that’s less restrained than the rigorous world of classical ballet, while still appreciating the discipline of dance.

If men can jump high, they should also know how to move low on the ground, as Sy’s original Cambodian dance-training teaches him to move. It strikes me as good that his hands make curves, as well as straight lines. His hands symbolize an inbred, organic and earthly graciousness absent in Western culture and art.

Honoring Female in Southeast Asia

Devata in the Cruciform Gallery of Angkor WatYears ago, I returned from dinner in Bangkok to my room at the Oriental Hotel, finding that the maid had created ‘art’ of my jewelry and hair bow. Rather than merely organizing my things, she made a precisely-arranged still life, a visual delight that appeared effortless and totally natural.

At the risk of being verbally slapped then and now, I’ve wondered if the French influence combined with the incredibly beautiful, innate sophistication of Thai beauty produced a cultural fusion more beautiful than either one on its own.

This impression of France’s imprint on art and design in Southeast Asia has never left me.  It’s possible that precolonial Thailand was even more beautiful and not at all enhanced by the French experience.

Writing in July 2008 about Angkor Wat, I said: The organic, fecund nature of this architecture is so female. Not pyramids pointing to the heavens, these temples and carvings are pregnant with sensuality and female spirit. These temples do not worship kings, but nature herself. The surfaces do not immediately reveal their entire detail. Like a mysterious woman, they require diligent study and investigation. I can imagine these walls revealing new surprises, with every visit.

Sy ends ‘Dancing Across Borders’ describing his life as one not rooted in a particular home. His art, personality, charm, dedication, perserverance, talent — and his adaptability — make him a diplomat, as well as a dancer.

Make no mistake. I love classical ballet. But in today’s world, art that reveals our humanity seems a higher priority to me. This artistic connection came alive for me when Sy performed ‘On the Other Side’, accompanied by Philip Glass, for the opening night of the Vail International Dance Festival. Sy danced in Aspen.

In her personal embrace of rigorous discipline, focused self-development, and a Queenly preference for emotional restraint, Anne Bass has perhaps molded Sokvannara Sar into a bigger star than even she envisioned.

Sy may not follow the precise path Bass had in mind for him, but in creating and embracing his own self, he has all the qualities the cultured, rich, society woman recognized in his magnetic appeal to a world deeply needy for artistic heroes and lighters of new paths for humanity.

This is the man who danced in my dreams Wednesday evening — the breakout man, molded by rigorous Western training but with goddesses in his soul.  Anne

Splendor in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat