The real-life journey in “Dancing Across Borders” begins in Cambodia, leaps to New York City and lands with a graceful plie in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest Ballet, to be precise.
This journey is taken by Sokvannara Sar, called Sy by one and all. He is a dancer.
The journey is chronicled by Anne Bass, a prominent New York socialite and arts patron. She’s the person who discovered Sy dancing, and — perhaps somewhat oddly — she’s also the director of “Dancing Across Borders.”
Bass was on a trip to Cambodia in 2000 when she saw a performance of traditional folk dance, and was captivated by one young performer — Sokvannara Sar, of course. He’d never taken a ballet class in his life, but she thought his raw talent (and innate stage presence) might be molded by the top talents of the ballet world.
It’s never quite explained who is paying for everything (a question that should always be asked and answered in a documentary), but Sy begins taking classes through the School of American Ballet and from meticulous instructor Olga Kostritzky.
At 16, he’s fairly old to begin learning the painstaking techniques of ballet, which is noted by a series of observers including Peter Boal, now the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. But after a few years of intensive training, Sy begins to make his mark in the dance world.
In the second half of the film, we get to watch some of Sy’s athletic dancing, including a solo performance with Philip Glass playing piano behind him.
Now a company member at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Sy admits that his strength is the solo dancing that allows his unmistakable charisma to connect directly with the audience.
Partnering with other dancers? Still a challenge.
This story is a pleasant one, although there is something curious and unexamined about Anne Bass’ depiction of her own undeniably generous patronage. A more objective filmmaker might have looked deeper into Sy’s feelings about being uprooted from his homeland and dropped into a new world as a kind of experiment in nurturing talent.
I couldn’t help but think about the recent fiction film “Sugar,” which looked at the mixed experience of a Caribbean ballplayer immersed in the U.S. system of baseball.
Still: Good for Sy. Given his rapport with the camera, his future might even lie in the movies, once he’s through with the ballet stage.