It all started at a temple in Siem Reap province. Sokvannara Sar, better known as Sy, was performing the Fisherman Dance for tourists at Preah Khan temple.
The year was 2000, and among the audience that day was an American socialite and arts patron named Anne Bass. It was her first time in Cambodia, and after she left, she could not stop thinking about Sy.
She determined to find a way to put him into the world of ballet. That decision was the beginning of an odyssey for the dancer, one that is captured in a new film, “Dancing Across Borders.”
“This image of him and his spirit kept coming back to me,” Bass says in the film, which had a brief showing in Washington and other US cities recently. “And I thought about the fact that Cambodian dancers, especially male dancers, don’t have much for the future and I sensed a really great talent in him and I kept thinking how sad it would be just to leave that unrealized.”
Sy flew to the US under Bass’ sponsorship to receive training from ballet professionals. He was 16 year old—old in the dance world—and he spoke no English. But he impressed his teachers.
“The first time I saw him I thought this boy is stunning,” Jock Soto, a former professional dancer of the New York City Ballet says in the film. “He is so beautiful…and I didn’t have a clue what he could do.”
Sy told VOA Khmer recently he had no idea what ballet even was. He just showed up where he was told to show up, and he danced. He jumped up and down. He learned. He became a ballet dancer. He was taught under a professional coach, Olga Kostritzky, and he practiced. He practiced and practiced.
In 2006, he had a chance to perform for the opening of the new US Embassy in Phnom Penh. He flew through the air, jumped, flitted his legs, landed. His hands moved—up, down, sideways. He flexed his body to the tune of a piano. He did things many Cambodians had never seen. They marveled.
Later that year, he competed in Bulgaria, bringing the Cambodian flag for the first time in many years to an Olympic dance competition. He made it to the semi-finals before he was eliminated.
“I think one of the best parts of the competition for Sy was sharing the stage with dancers from ballet companies throughout the world,” Bass says.
Contestants were from many countries including Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Korea. He later began dancing for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, in Seattle.
“It wasn’t that we were forcing him on this fast track,” Peter Boal, artistic director for that ballet company, says. “It’s just he was able to learn what he needed to learn, accomplish what he needed to accomplish, in such a short amount of time to go up a level—which was great because if he couldn’t, he wouldn’t have made it as a professional dancer.”
“It’s really was quite remarkable,” he says. “I would have said it’s a one in a thousand chance that this could work, and I think we found that one.”
Sy’s natural ability and style have made it hard for people to believe he only recently began ballet—a Western form of classical dance that is far removed from Cambodian folk dance.
“Our Cambodian dance is different from ballet,” Sy said. “We don’t have to do too much bending. We do some, but we can start when we get older. But 99 percent of ballet dancers have to start at ages 8 or 9. Cambodia dance is slow. There is not too much jumping, twisting or extending legs. There is no toe twisting.”
Sy spent four years at the Pacific Northwest company. He quit a few months ago and is now looking for a new company. He has no plans yet to bring his learning back to Cambodia.
“I want to spend a bit more time studying this dance, but sometimes I think of going home,” he said. “In the future if there is a need to have me share knowledge or form a ballet group, that would be good, as there is no ballet in Cambodia.”
In fact, Cambodia once had ballet. It was taught by Russian coaches in the 1960s, said Proeung Chhoeung, an adviser to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
And the government would like to see it return, although it has made little progress, he said. “We will surely have it in the future.”