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"Dancing Across Borders"

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From WNYC.org, this audio clip:

Dancing Across Borders

Anne Bass, director, and dancer Sokvannara Sar discuss the documentary film "Dancing Across Borders," which tells the story of Sokvannara "Sy" Sar, who was dancing with a small troupe in Angkor Wat when Anne Bass, a longtime patron of dance in America, saw him perform and arranged for him to come to New York to audition for the prestigious School of the American Ballet. "Dancing Across Borders"opens at the Quad Cinema on March 26.

Coincidentally, Sy Sar became my seatmate at tonight's screening of Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi's film of New York Export: Op. Jazz. Anne Bass passed me, then another woman, then a young man of Southeast Asian origin. I asked, "Did I hear you on the radio earlier today?" He smiled and said yes. Seemed very personable and friendly. :D I look forward to seeing the film.

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I came across this review today of Dancing Across Borders, the Anne Bass documentary on Cambodian ballet dancer Sokvannara "Sy" Sar, by Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey. The documentary follows Sy from folk-dance training in Angkor Wat to the School of American Ballet in New York. The film is meant to celebrate Sy's journey, but raises some troubling quesitons for the reviewer. The following passages from the review really stood out to me:

Praising the candor with which Sy speaks about his experiences and ambivalences, Rickey notes that "the film is not forthcoming about Bass' motives for bringing him to the States and the nature of their relationship. Is Bass his patroness, his surrogate mother, his life partner? These unanswered questions linger over the film like a stubborn smog." She continues, adding "Though it's a joy to watch Sy move with unself-conscious exuberance, it is painful to see him struggle with the expectations thrust upon him." Her review concludes "It becomes very hard during this uneven and unsatisfying documentary to know whether Bass made this bittersweet film to document Sy's struggle - or her own."

Another interesting moment comes when Rickey describes others evaluating him: "Peter Boal, then of the School of American Ballet, examines Sy like livestock: 'Good feet, good extension.'"

I appreciated this reviewer's willingness to be critical about what she sees, when many are just bowled over by seeing beautiful dancers on screen. I haven't seen the movie myself, though, and wondered what others who had think of this review.

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I've been noticing that many of the latest reviews of "Dancing Across Borders" that I've been getting via Google alerts are highly critical of Anne Bass personally and her action to move him from his family and country.

Three are from Sarah Kaufman in The Washington Post, Gary Kramer in San Francisco Bay Times, and Amanda Hay in The Tufts Daily.

Some of them read like critiques of colonization; Ms. Hay asks "It fails to question ... whether ballet is really superior to Cambodian dance.", which misses the point, since Sar himself asserts that he, as a male, could not make a living as a professional dancer in Cambodian dance. Ms. Kaufman concludes "And here's a footnote to the success of Bass's project: Sar quit Pacific Northwest Ballet earlier this year. " but fails to mention that later in the season he realized he missed ballet and asked Peter Boal if he could rejoin the company, was denied, and is currently auditioning for other companies. I would call that a greater success: he left the standard career track and without it pulling him along, realized he wants back in.

I seem to miss it no matter what city I'm in, and I'm interested in seeing it.

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I note for the record that most of the articles mentioned above can be found in our very own Links. :)

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I'm posting as one who came across this story first on BT's own LINKS. Thanks, dirac. :clapping:

Helene, thanks for that update and for your thoughts about the story. Most reviewers seem to focus on the character of Ms. Bass, when the really interesting story is Mr. Sar's.

Kaufman really hated the project:

Do-gooder vanity projects don't come more self-aggrandizing than this. Bass is onscreen nearly as much as her sweet-faced work-in-progress, Sokvannara Sar, with whom she became captivated after watching him perform in a traditional Khmer temple dance. If you're able to get past her narcissistic streak -- and really, how else do you make a movie about yourself without being filmed and interviewed in it? -- then you're faced with buying into a morally dicey endeavor
Ouch! It would be nice if the press could forget about Ms. Bass and focus a little more on Mr. Sar's quest for a place in western ballet, as Helene's post does.

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Another interesting moment comes when Rickey describes others evaluating him: "Peter Boal, then of the School of American Ballet, examines Sy like livestock: 'Good feet, good extension.'

This reminds me of the documentary footage we frequently see of auditions for the Vaganova School, where the teachers manipulate the applicants' arms and legs to see their potential for flexibility. The children are so young, and the maneuvers are so matter-of-fact -- the whole thing has a very utilitarian feel to it that might look harsh or even predatory to someone who doesn't know the context.

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Mrs. Bass and Mr. Sar will be at both screenings in Washington DC E. Street Cinema tonight 730 and 945pm.

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The first rule of journalism and documentary filming is that the filmmaker is never the story; you should not hear or see them. And if you are really diligent, you can avoid narration as well--as some 'famous' filmmakers have.

However, many times this is ignored by major media if....

1) The reporters/anchors are "stars" - a la the "60 Minutes" or other major news programs. (Just once, though, I wish someone would show how much the WRITERS/PRODUCERS of the stories actually do--not the 'stars', anchors, et.al. who are usually only good actors and copy readers.)

2) There is not enough actual documentary footage available to make a complete film so it is 'filled out' by inserting 're-enactments' or the film becomes a "MAKING OF..." project.

Two examples come to mind: WGBH's "Death of a Princess" (this also became a Harvard Business School case study, which mentioned the controversies of its production, but not the fact that 'GBH didn't have enough footage to really do the story); and a recent POV doc about an Iraqi student who wanted to get into filmmaking, and the Americans and British producers who tried to help his career and give him a break from his wartorn country; but the problems of doing this were what the film actually was about.

RE: Ms. Bass, I haven't seen her film yet, (hey, La Danse hasn't even played here yet!) so am not sure how egregious her presence is or not in the film. I do think her effort to help someone realize a dream/goal cannot be all bad. However, of the several dance films recently released, "vanity project(s)" is not far from the truth. There is also a MAJOR disconnect between the very well off, and the rest of us, when it comes to the difficulties of filmmaking or realizing our dreams--as I and everyone else have learned this past year. (eg. Main St. vs Wall St., Washington, or arts/media patronage.)

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However, of the several dance films recently released, "vanity project(s)" is not far from the truth.

I haven't seen the movie yet but that's certainly what it sounds like. Ignoring the role Bass played in Sar's story (and that story's making it to the screen) would be ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.

1) The reporters/anchors are "stars" - a la the "60 Minutes" or other major news programs. (Just once, though, I wish someone would show how much the WRITERS/PRODUCERS of the stories actually do--not the 'stars', anchors, et.al. who are usually only good actors and copy readers.)

(It's off topic, but that did happen at least once, in a high profile feature film, 'The Insider' with Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Pacino, the producer, is very clearly the man behind the story while the correspondent (Mike Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer) parachutes in after everything's been set up for him. Wallace wasn't pleased. Broadcast News, too. Of course, those were a long time ago. :excl:)

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I think Michael Apted's voice was pretty prominent as a voice in the "Up" documentaries.

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Given that Anne Bass was the catalyst of Sy Sar's remarkable journey (in both the literal and larger senses), I think she deserves praise for putting herself in the background, to the extent possible. This is a documentary, but it is not necessarily journalism, and I have seen any number of documentaries in which the unique perspective of the filmmaker (son of Alzheimer's victim springs immediately to mind) is intrinsic to the film's narrative and its value. Anne Bass does not intrude in this way, but I don't think it's fair to condemn her for recording the story of this young man, in whose promise she believed so fervently.

Her intention, it seems, was to display Sy's talent and determination (with its fluctuations) to become a professional ballet dancer. This she does, giving us also his charm (a word overused in the film, ergo here, too, but it is what it is :excl: ), and his achievements. She does not ignore his sense of isolation and loneliness. What comes into relief a few weeks after having seen the film though, is the heroic work of Olga Kostrizky, who took the young stranger from "This is first position, and this is tendu," until he was ready to join a class of younger students at SAB. What patience and dedication she showed!

As for Sy's being torn between two vastly different cultures, it is something to consider. For years, I heard the story about my great-grandmother who came to the US from Russia alone at age 13 and not speaking English. What I never heard until I was almost 30, from a distant cousin, was that she didn't stay. She went back until the whole family was ready to emigrate. I liked that part -- it made her more human. Not every immigrant can go back to their country of origin and return again to the US. I'm not saying it's easy, but when Sy Sar goes back to Cambodia, he does so as a celebrity of sorts.

The film was obviously "in the can" before he left PNB. I just hope whereever he finds himself next feels comfortable enough to become his home, even if it's only his other home.

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I saw the film today (in DC).

My read is that Anne Bass was actually _less_ present in the film than her place in the story warranted, and so I thought in that regard the film showed restraint. I actually would've liked to hear more from her.

As for her role in Sy's life, I assumed that it was along the lines of "this is someone who has enough money that she can undertake a project like this without worrying about the cost, who has the connections to make it happen, and who loves ballet". That might be naive, but that was my take.

I thought the film was quite fair and clear about how difficult such a transition was (and has been) for its star. It's a documentary--not a fairy tale. Time will tell what the ultimate ending is, though the most interesting comment along those lines was from Peter Boal, who said that he expects Sy to create something completely different that reflects his unique background.

As for the assessment of Sy's body type, or physical facility for ballet: didn't seem out of the ordinary to me at all. Oh, and I did think he has a truly remarkable demi plie.

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I saw the movie yesterday on a preview DVD, and if the version shown in the theaters is the same, like too many documentaries I've seen lately, since it was not intended to be a "day in the life" of approach, it would be an excellent movie with about 20 minutes edited out, but as it stands, through repetition and talking heads it loses focus and impact.

There are three great elements in the film: the footage of Cambodia, both when Anne Bass first spots Sar and when he returns to dance in a gala, the footage of Sar's dancing, and any scene in which Olga Kostritzky, a heroine if there ever was one, appears.

Sar might not be the only ballet dancer to have left his family and come to another country to face loneliness and frustration -- Part, for example, has described this experience -- but what other contemporary ballet dancer moved to another country not knowing the language or what ballet was? Because of this, Peter Boal comes across as dense at the beginning of the film, as he describes how Sar couldn't follow a glissade assemble, etc. combination in his initial tryout, but how could Sar when he didn't know what those things were? Jock Soto, on the other hand, was taken by Sar's ability to jump, and in the telling, there's a sparkle in his voice. (I remember reading that Soto saw a male dancer on TV, was inspired, and started to jump around the living room.) It's understandable how Boal thought that Sar had little chance to succeed -- this wasn't the late 30's or early '40's when Melissa Hayden took up ballet as a teenager -- but there was no chance he'd succeed on day one in ballet terms. Boal articulates a lot of this later, and he was one of Sar's primary teachers once Sar made it into ABT; the editing does him no favors, though.

There is some lovely dancing from Sar, particularly in the excerpts from "La Source" and the Varna competition pieces, where he brings a soft, lilting style and bypasses gymnastic excess. It was interesting to see how while his turnout could turn a bit lax in glissade, for example -- not surprising for a dancer for whom turnout was relatively new, not drilled into him for a decade -- wherever he led with the knee, like the beautiful attitude turns, his turnout was live. If the film goes to DVD, the performance footage alone would be worth it.

Olga Kostritzky is the heart of the movie, not because of the work, but because of the calm, matter-of-fact way in which she did it and her overall matter-of-fact graciousness.

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Amazon is taking pre-orders for the DVD and Blu-Ray. The release date is October 26.

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I watched the film today on Netflix and felt it was bittersweet, just like being a dancer, the stories portrayed in the ballet, and love itself. I was transfixed by the narrative, as well as the dancing, the instruction, the beautiful dancers, Sy's personality, and Olga's joy and pride.

I expected to read more about Sy's dancing on this board. I thought his extension and feet were beautiful. He is very lovely to look at, as well; Ms. Bass and Mr. Boal (I believe) properly identified his well-proportioned body, and failed to give adequate credit to his overall beauty. Sy's joy is infectious and appealing. However, listening to him describe his sense of not belonging and his experience of displacement, loneliness, isolation, and loss were painful to watch. I felt Sy's dancing offstage, during rehearsal, surpassed his onstage performances, as least in the snippets shown in the movie.

I have to ask whether Ms. Bass put herself in the line of critic's fire by naming herself as director and producer, as well as taking credit for other roles, when she had to be interviewed, filmed onscreen, and discussed as part of the story. She easily could have retained someone else for these positions, even as a proxy. She had to have been aware and been advised that her work would be attacked by critics in some manner as a vanity project, even without regard to the underlying ethical questions involved.

The structure of the film left me with an enduring question: to whom does the title "Lucky" apply? Ms. Bass, or someone discussing her beliefs in the film, indicated that she was trying to serve the world of ballet by bringing Sy to the West. Therefore, the ballet world would be lucky to have a new, spirited, and personable dancer to enjoy and presumably to help the ballet endure. Sy seemed confused, because he seemed to think that he was the one who bore the title of "The Lucky One," but he did not seem to know in what sense he was truly considered "lucky." Was he rescued from any particular evil or doom? He lived in poverty, but a chance to study to become a dancer does not give rise to any guarantee of avoiding poverty. Was he then rescued from relative poverty? Even if he could not get a job as a professional dancer in his country, he might have obtained other types of employment; the film does not provide any information in this regard from which to make an assessment of this issue. Is Sy described as "lucky" simply because he had an opportunity learn Western ballet technique and dance ballet onstage, regardless of the personal cost? This was never his personal goal or desire, so while an American or Western European dancer would be enthralled by the attention and support of Ms. Bass and the school, and be willing to sacrifice for the opportunity, why would being selected to fulfill someone else's dream make him lucky? Was he considered lucky because he was allowed to meet a certain group of people? Will his American education allow him to return home with new opportunities and skills, and was that what made him lucky? If he returns with these skills, will he be an outsider with respect to two societies? The film was opaque and required the viewer to presume too many things. None of these issues was explored. The film became unfocused for me because I could not identify to whom the title applied and the basis for its application. (This sounds harsh, but it is not intended as an attack. I simply was uplifted until the end, and was left saddened and confused; I think it is because of the shifting application of the term "lucky" and the lack of explanation as to why or how it was believed to apply.)

The movie did not portray a fairy-tale of a boy's journey in his attempt to fulfill a passion, if only given the opportunity, nor did it portray a journey from poverty to success. Despite the uplifting tone at the beginning, and the encouraging signs about Sy's journey and success during his instructional period, warnings signs appear toward the end, signaling that ambiguity or disappointment would ensue. Reading these boards made me feel even more unsettled. I think abandoning or punishing Sy, rather than supporting him, as the above posts suggest Peter Boal has done, is an even greater ethical problem than the one for which critics attacked Ms. Bass. I am forced to wonder, without any knowledge, what sort of life struggles and dilemmas Mr. Boal has faced, what sort of support he had, and what his personal motives are.

When I turned to these boards, I was hoping to find out where Sy was dancing so that I could see him perform, or send him a word of support or encouragement, but I was left with a feeling of having been let down by the ballet world. Apparently, more teachers like Olga are needed, and they need to be asserting their power more. I think Ms. Bass has more to say, as well.

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I expected to read more about Sy's dancing on this board.

He danced in Seattle until a couple of years ago and with Suzanne Farrell Ballet last season. He's performed in Vail, did a solo for Avi Scher last year, performed at the Fire Island Dance Festival] earlier this month, and he's just joined Carolina Ballet and appears on their roster as Soloist.

http://balletalert.invisionzone.com/index.php?/topic/34160-wednesday-june-20/page__view__findpost__p__289709

From a recent article:

The drama continues after the period covered by the documentary. Last year Sy decided that he had had enough and walked away.

"I had a little breakdown last year and quit ballet," he says. "I didn't want to dance at all.

But it was not fair on Anne and all the people who had helped me. I came back. Dancing is making me who I am right now. I like to move, I cannot stand still. So I had to come back."

Most of the reviews on this board are from New York, and New Yorkers have barely seen him. The documentary came out after Sar joined and left PNB. While he is a wonderful dancer, there are many wonderful dancers in the company, and he did not get a disproportionate amount of attention, since he was known solely by what he put on stage.

Reading these boards made me feel even more unsettled. I think abandoning or punishing Sy, rather than supporting him, as the above posts suggest Peter Boal has done, is an even greater ethical problem than the one for which critics attacked Ms. Bass. I am forced to wonder, without any knowledge, what sort of life struggles and dilemmas Mr. Boal has faced, what sort of support he had, and what his personal motives are.

As I said in my post, I thought the editing did Boal no favors. Sar trained at PNB school for a year -- he did a wonderful performnace as the Dancing Master in "Konservatoriat" and also performed as Oberon in the Scherzo from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the end-of-year school PNB School show -- and Boal hired him into the company first as an apprentice and then as corps, giving him a number of opportunities in dance (ex: the solo "Mopey") and character (ex: bartender in "Fancy Free") roles.

When I turned to these boards, I was hoping to find out where Sy was dancing so that I could see him perform, or send him a word of support or encouragement, but I was left with a feeling of having been let down by the ballet world.

The ballet world is competitive, and when a dancer leaves, companies just don't stop and wait for them to return.

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Helene stated, "The ballet world is competitive, and when a dancer leaves, companies just don't stop and wait for them to return."

No one expected any company to "wait around," but that is not what was described in the above posts. Competitiveness does not require the response provided by Boal, which was suggested on this board (if accurate).

Having a breakdown does not suggest any lack of talent, commitment, work ethic, or artistic merit; it does not indicate a lack of ability to perform or train or be part of a company, either. Maybe if Sy had received sufficient and appropriate support, he would not have undergone the breakdown, or suffered unnecessarily, or he would have been able to recover and appropriately return. Before relying on standard operating procedure, or falling prey to wounded pride and what may be a perception of ingratitude (if that is the case, which I do not know), I believe Mr. Boal should think about what it would be like for him to leave his family at age 16 and be placed, without friends or relatives, in a new country in which the citizens value different things and speak a different language, to be forced to deal with the possibility of having to abandon his inculcated values and adapt to new ideals, to have to choose between competing worlds, to have to learn a completely new art form in a short time period, to be required to obtain simultaneously a high school education in a foreign language, to have to train his body to a superior level, to have to survive adolesense and undergo the transition to young adulthood, to have to compete to become employable in a field with few job opportunities, to have to endure the pressure of competing obligations to family and benefactors, to have to deal with the consequences of fame, and to have the bear the weight of being a declared model of hope for children whose parents have endured genocide and the devastation of their culture, all while under the scrutiny of cameras. That ballet is "competitive and does not wait around" is an overly simplistic response. Does one size really fit all in ballet?

I could not see clearly from the quality of the streamed Netflix movie, but I believe Sy performed his entrechat six without crossing his feet. Is this an alternate method of performing this step?

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I saw the movie and participated in the Q&A afterwards with Sy and Anne. I thought she tried to put truth on the screen, even when it did not fit a traditional "arc" storyline: Young kid with a dream to dance ballet, someone gives him a helping hand, he becomes the next Nuriyev. Sy's story is taking a different route. But how different is his route than any other child prodigy? Jennifer Capriati in tennis? Freddy Adu in soccer? numerous young violin / piano / chess / math whizes who grow up to doubt their passions? I think this is a complicated story and the arc is incomplete, Sy must write the remaining chapters. I was encouraged to learn he was signed as a soloist at Carolina Ballet. He will have opportunities for more singular roles and work on his partnering. He is still young enough to develop his dance qualities.

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