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A Cambodian Boy’s Rise to Ballet, on Film

In “Dancing Across Borders,” a new documentary, a dancer tells the camera: “To dance the dance is like fishing in the rice field with other people, because that’s what we do. We fish and we talk with friends and sing. So when I came to the fishing dance, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, we know this.’”

That raw ability for dance, explained by the dancer, Sar Sokvannara, is at the center of the film, which chronicles his attempts to leave Cambodia and enter the world of international ballet.

“Dancing Across Borders” was the result of a brief visit by the filmmaker, Anne Bass, to Angkor Wat in 2000, when she met Sar Sokvannara, who was just 16. His natural charm and grace prompted Bass to wonder how opportunity might sharpen a person’s innate talent.

“I was very, very struck with his musicality, his proportion,” Bass, a patron of American dance, told VOA Khmer. “I just haven’t seen anything like this. It’s just folk dance. It’s just a very simple thing. [But] he has great charisma on stage. And I worried about what would happen to him in Cambodia, whether there was a future for someone with that talent.”

After she returned to the US, Bass eventually decided she would help the boy. The story that unfolds, through video footage originally meant to inform his parents of his progress, is an inside look at the world of ballet and the relationship between Sar Sokvannara, Bass, and his new dance teacher, Olga Kostritzky.

The film, the first for Bass, who has founded several art schools, chronicles Sar Sovannara’s life as he learns to cope with his new environment. The key to his success, ultimately, is his charisma, hard work, and unforeseen advantages from his Cambodia upbringing.

“His dance training, his learning to move to music, you know all that musicality and having that kind of movement groove in your brain, that was all there,” Bass said. “And also, in Cambodia, people are very physical and they are not kind of spoiled like we are, where we are all rolled around from one place to another. People jump, leap, squat—and he had a very flexible Achilles tendon—and all kinds of things that made it much easier for him physically. He was just very limber, and that certainly helped.”

Sar Sokvannara, who was born in Siem Reap and trained in folk dance at the Wat Bo school there, ultimately went on to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, in Seattle, Washington.

Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts award earlier this year, said she highly valued Sar Sokvannara’s achievements, especially to begin training in ballet at an old age, 17.

Cambodian traditional dance and Western ballet have completely different physical requirements and aesthetic forms, she said. “This transformation is very difficult.”

“I admire him for being very successful,” said Yun Theara, a professor of traditional music and vice dean of the Royal University of Fine Arts. “I am sure success must be thanks to his innate talent, along with his effort, which makes this possible.”