‘Dancing Across Borders’…a DVD review

20 Feb

It’s odd that Seattle has decided to invite the winter spirits, which was particularly cruel on a day like today, with cerulean skies and a radiant sun—accompanied with biting winds and sub-forty-five degree temperatures.  Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to the cold and anything below forty-five is all the same to me…I call it my “immobilization threshold.”  It’s possible that something like negative forty would have an even more profound effect such as cryogenic hibernation and in fact, I was recently told that if you step outside in those temperatures, your nose hairs will freeze (ask someone from Northern Canada…I’m sure they can confirm this).   The point is, all I wanted to do was wrap myself in blankets like a giant burrito and wait for spring to arrive.

I did manage to do the first part of that, but had to something productive, which I decided would be to attack my tower of library materials (some of which are probably overdue), including the documentary Dancing Across Borders.  The film was directed and produced by socialite Anne Bass, who saw Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced like “sea”) Sar as a young boy in Cambodia, performing in traditional Khmer dances.  He obviously had no knowledge of or exposure to ballet, but she could see quality in his movement, a knack for performance and the makings for a physique quite suitable for ballet.  She eventually brought him to New York and the School of American Ballet, where he received a great deal of private coaching from Olga Kostritzky and with one of the most freakish learning curves known to man, refined his raw talent into an accomplished ballet dancer.

Initially, I thought this would be a story similar to Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who grew up impoverished and learning the dances of his people (salsa and even break-dancing) before finding his way to ballet but there are significant differences.  Sy began his formal training at a much later age but what separates Sy from Acosta is that Cambodia has no tradition in ballet.  Acosta’s father, who was instrumental in ensuring his son’s pursuit of a ballet career held a great deal of admiration for the art, which had become a national treasure thanks to Alicia Alonso.  However, Sy’s parents understandably have a different perspective; they recognize their son’s talents and the opportunities it gives him but very little if anything beyond that.  His father even wishes Sy worked for the government, or became an engineer or doctor.  I don’t think he meant that in a “crush the artist’s dreams and get a ‘real’ job” sort of way, because I find it impossible to fault them for not understanding the impact and prestige of a ballet career.  This is perhaps the greatest difference of them all—as Acosta wraps up what has been one of the most prolific ballet careers of the past couple of decades as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet (donning the banana yellow tights in La Fille mal Gardée for what he must always hope is the last time), Sy still seems to be finding his identify as a dancer.

I say that because Bass herself even said that she wouldn’t want Sy to continue dancing if he didn’t want to, but after a few years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, he left to be a freelance artist.  It’s not a decision that surprises me because throughout the documentary he always struck me as someone who was a bit at odds with how much of his relationship with dance was talent and how much of it was passion.  After all, he makes it pretty clear that he’s not a huge fan of partnering so maybe his destiny isn’t really to be a classical ballet dancer.  Even though this is not my experience with dance, I felt like I could relate a bit because this was my approach to school.  I was a good (if anything, clever) student and when I was in control of my curriculum, I truly excelled.  I got better grades in college than I did in high school because I got so many opportunities to study things that interested me and yet I still managed good grades in subjects I hated, like math and chemistry so it baffled people (well, my parents really) when I refused to pursue a career in those fields.  It’s not enough to just be good at something because if the heart is unwilling, the result feels empty even if it looks brilliant.  Despite Sy’s unique qualities as a dancer, you can’t help but feel like dancing for a classical ballet company was like caging a magnificent, rare bird.

Still, it’s easy to see why so many like Peter Boal found Sy exciting—he has an effervescence that cannot be explained and can only be captured visually in photographs or film.  There’s a lot of great footage of him in class as well as performance selections and variations from competition footage with lots of favorites like Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, La Sylphide, in addition to rehearsal footage with Benjamin Millepied and the actual performance of Millepied’s piece at the Vail International Dance Festival with live accompaniment from Philip Glass himself.  In Millepied’s contemporary work is where I thought Sy was most breathtaking.  There was a joy of movement in that work which is part of what leads me to believe Sy is suited more towards that style so I hope now as a freelance artist he is finding those opportunities because even if he’s pretty damn good at classical ballet, sometimes the things we’re born to do aren’t the things we look like we’re born to do.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Dancing Across Borders because I think it tells the honest story of a dancer.  Oftentimes I think the problem with fictitious dance stories is the ridiculous, almost melodramatic, romanticized images you’ll often see when in fact many dancers lead extraordinary lives that don’t need to be enhanced, just told.  Seattleites will also get a kick out of seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios, McCaw Hall and a few glimpses of familiar faces (I spotted Carla Körbes, and it’s interesting to note that both she and Sy were foreign dancers heavily recruited by Peter…very cool of him).  Actually, Varna had some fun cameos too, like an equally young Belarusian lynx Ivan Vasiliev (I was going to say panther, but there are no panthers in Belarus) doing some of his signature moon-jumping leaps.  At any rate, the only disappointment I had regarding the film was that it all went down just before I moved here…it would have been great to watch Sy dance live, though perhaps opportunities remain in the future to do so, and maybe for the better in a piece where he is truly in his element.  Check out the trailer for fun, or because I’m telling you to:

10 Responses to “‘Dancing Across Borders’…a DVD review”

  1. Bead 109 February 20, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    First, your nose hairs, eyelashes, etc CAN freeze. Second, I now have an image of a not so big Steve burrito that makes me laugh. Third, I watched the trailer because you said so and my copy of the movie is on it’s way from Netflix. Finally, I love the tag for banana tights 🙂

    Having read Acosta’s book, I’m not looking forward to the contrast in the stories!

    Thanks for the great review!


    • youdancefunny February 21, 2011 at 11:14 am #

      Yay! Let me know what you think of it!

  2. Nichelle February 22, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I’ve reviewed this too, if you want to check it out. The film’s really a must, I think, for its look into the unglamorous and sometimes frustrating side of training… and training hard!

    • youdancefunny February 25, 2011 at 9:19 am #

      Just read your review…it’s awesome! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Maria February 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I’m gonna watch it one of these days! Thanks for the great review. 🙂 I am also waiting for spring to come…

    • youdancefunny March 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

      I think spring is almost here! Thank goodness and thanks for your comment!

  4. Naomi March 4, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    Fortunately, this documentary was televised in japan (split into 2 halves so I just saw the first half) and it showed me one of the reasons I am attracted to ballet, the sense of being alive.

    Well I found out that now Sy dances with Suzanne Farell Ballet so he is still dancing classical ballet!

    • youdancefunny March 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

      How wonderful! I’ve been hearing good things about Suzanne Farrell Ballet. I hope you see the rest of the documentary soon!

  5. Jeff March 29, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    I just watched this recently too (thank you, Netflix instant streaming) and found it fascinating. I agree, the Millepied work was quite moving… I even found the rehearsal footage, with the late-afternoon light and the abandon in the movement, as stunning as the final performance. (Thanks for the review of Only When I Dance… I will have to check that out too. Nice, also on Netflix!)

    • youdancefunny April 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

      Interesting observation about the rehearsal in the studio! I love dancing in studios…the light, the atmosphere…it’s where I feel at home. I can’t imagine what performing on a stage is really like! (in a professional setting that is)

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