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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Movie review: 'Dancing Across Borders'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Sokvannara Sar was brought from Cambodia to learn classical ballet.

Typical Cambodian souvenirs include hand-woven silks and wood carvings, but Anne Bass, a donor to and member of many ballet boards, wasn't after typical. On her trip to Angkor Wat, she picked up a human being instead.

"Dancing Across Borders" is the documentary that Bass, a first-time filmmaker, made about her effort to bring a Cambodian teenager to New York, where he underwent the grueling process of becoming a classical ballet dancer.

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.

It may seem like a good thing that a 16-year-old Cambodian without means was scooped up and deposited in Manhattan, where he could pursue the American dream, even if it meant wearing tights. Shouldn't we be impressed that he was saved? But hear Sar describe mixed feelings (mostly sad ones) about Bass's invitation, hear him talk about his reluctance to leave his mother and how lonely he was among the skyscrapers and perennially dissatisfied ballet teachers, and you may find Bass's unique twist on arts patronage uncomfortably one-sided.

This is particularly true when we see what Sar goes through to master in five years what takes 10 or 15 for a typical ballet dancer to learn. A professional dancer starts training as a child, when muscles and joints are more malleable. Sar, however, was nearly an adult, and his experience in Khmer dancing, with its emphasis on slow, gentle movements and sinking low into the ground, lent him some very lovely qualities but did not fully prepare him for ballet's speed, lyricism and perfection of form. Also, whether it was because he was a teenager or because he was unhappy or he just wasn't brought up in ballet's culture of subservience, Sar wasn't always a cooperative student.

Still, his teachers were intrigued by the challenge he posed. He was a combination of "the extraordinary and the complete lack of training," said Peter Boal, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer, who helped in Sar's grooming.

Eventually, Boal left City Ballet to direct Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, and he hired Sar as an apprentice.

Much is made of the fact that, as a Cambodian ballet dancer, Sar is a cultural rarity. Indeed, he is a singular dancer, and the film is at its best when it captures him in glorious motion, particularly in a contemporary solo that was perfectly suited to his physical softness and delicacy. Perhaps things turned out okay for him, or at least better than fishing in the mud. But watching Sar's difficult journey, I felt like a voyeur to a slightly creepy case of noblesse oblige.

And here's a footnote to the success of Bass's project: Sar quit Pacific Northwest Ballet earlier this year.

** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains nothing offensive or violent. 88 minutes.

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