By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly
While visiting Cambodia in 2000, American arts patron Anne H. Bass witnessed a rising star. Then 15 years old, Sokvannara “Sy” Sar performed a dance at Cambodia’s famous Preah Kahn temple and caught Bass’ eye.
Nine years later, Sar is a member of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company, and Bass has documented his journey every step of the way. On May 25, Sar’s story, in a film titled “Dancing Across Borders,” produced and directed by Bass, was showcased at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Sar’s journey began on the streets of Cambodia.
“I pretty much just followed my friends,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was really. I just wanted to try [dancing] out.”
At the age of 9, Sar began his dance education at the Wat Bo School and eventually found himself performing as a lead at the Preah Kahn temple. Bass happened to catch one of his performances.
After Bass returned home to the United States, she continued to think about Sar’s performance of the fisherman’s dance.
“I just kept thinking about … the fact that Cambodian dancers, especially male dancers, don’t have much of a future,” Bass said. “He was just so unbelievably and naturally gifted. He was a totally charismatic performer. The next thing I know, I was writing a letter to him and inviting him to dance ballet.”
Bass served as Sar’s sponsor on his trip to the United States.
Sar arrived a few weeks before turning the age of 17, an unusually late starting age for a ballet dancer.
He did not speak any English and was initially rejected from the School of American Ballet (SAB). Peter Boal, then a principal dancer and faculty at SAB, felt that he was not ready and said there was a language barrier.
“Already the cards were stacked against him,” Boal said in the film.
Sar also had to deal with the culture shock of moving to a different country. He enrolled in a high school and received his diploma in three years.
“It was tough,” Sar said. “I had never left home. There was nobody around who I could talk to. I was a little bit of an outsider.”
“He didn’t like anything from the standpoint of food,” Bass said. “We tried everything. He just really missed his mother’s cooking.”
One summer of intense training later, Sar was accepted into SAB and began classes with children ages 6 to 9.
To make up for lost time, he spent hours studying privately with ballet teacher Olga Kostritzky.
“It wasn’t easy,” Kostrizky said in the film. “Every day he would go through an enormous amount of material.”
“It’s a one in 1,000 chance that this could work, and I think we found that one,” Boal said.
In January 2006, the U.S. State Department in Cambodia organized an evening of cultural performances to celebrate the new embassy building. Sar was among the list of those invited to perform.
“[The Cambodians] are so proud of him,” said Roland Eng, a former Cambodian ambassador to the United States.
When Boal left SAB in 2006 to become the artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, he invited Sar to attend the company’s school. Sar enrolled one year later.
That was the same year Bass developed the idea for the documentary.
“When he first came here, I got a video camera so I could film his classes to send a record of his progress to his mother,” Bass said.
“That clip just kept running until we had a movie,” Sar said.
“I hope that some people who come to this film with no feeling for ballet might develop an interest in dance,” Bass said.
“Maybe [this film will] inspire some kids in this country or in my country,” Sar said.
Bass hopes that the film will also prompt viewers to offer their support when they recognize unusual talent, like in her case with Sar.
“[The film] is good because it’s not just about me.” Sar said. “It’s just a story. … There are not many Cambodians who do ballet. It’s more about that than me.”
Bass plans to continue attending film festivals to distribute the documentary. In January, she previewed the film in Cambodia to great success. Bass and Sar plan to return to show the film to children in various schools.
As for Sar, now 24, his future plans involve dance, academics, and some self-discovery.
“I think I’m going to stick around in PNB for a while,” he said. “I’m going to go back to school, college, just part-time, but I’m not quitting dance. … I’m just trying to figure out what exactly I want to do as an individual,” he said. “I’m not sure specifically who I want to be yet.” ♦
Ninette Cheng can be reached at email@example.com.