New Emissary

From Ruins to Ballet

A young dancing Cambodian goes from ancient ruins to…world-class stage.

The star of a new documentary premiering across the United States this month is 25-year-old native Cambodian dancer Sokvannara Sar, who goes by the nickname ‘Sy.’ With his charismatic good looks and constant smile, Sy has already been attracting praise from critics and audiences alike, who follow him through several pivotal years of his life—from a teenager dancing with his buddies amongst the ancient ruins of his home country, to becoming a full-fledged professional ballet dancer in the US.

The film, appropriately titled Dancing Across Borders, is directed by one of the (reportedly) wealthiest women in America, New York socialite and philanthropist Anne Bass. Bass visited Cambodia in 2000 with NPO World Monuments Fund and there, at the popular tourist destination of Angkor Wat, she came across a group of teens doing a native dance. One of those teens was Sar, and so memorable was his performance, that even months after returning to the United States, Bass couldn’t forget him.

And it turns out that back in Cambodia, Sar was studying at the Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance at Preah Khan. Back then, in 2000, dance was one of the ways that the war-torn nation was rebuilding itself from the havoc and tragedy caused by the Khmer Rouge regime. Bass was quoted as saying of her intentions: ‘I started thinking about Sy’s performance and the fact that he didn’t have a future there. And I couldn’t bear to think of that talent going to waste.’

Enlisting the help of World Monuments, she tracked him down and offered him a chance to go to the US and study at the prestigious School of American Ballet under her sponsorship. He accepted, and the rest is history.

So far, the film has been getting mixed reviews; and it’s the issue of subjectivity, considering the director of the documentary is also the subject’s benefactor, that’s turning some off. The Hollywood Reporter pointed out in its review that while Sar’s charisma and talent on-screen is undeniable and dance fans will enjoy the film, ‘it’s hard not to wish that his story had been told by a more experienced, not to mention, objective filmmaker.’

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The New York Times was not so kind, calling Dancing Across Borders out for being far too subjective: ‘Charity is always double-edged, but you wouldn’t know that from this determinedly cheerful documentary assembled by Ms. Bass without frills or awareness of the need for an objective voice.’

But others are raving about the film, including Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for the Huffington Post who calls Dancing a: ‘wonderful and moving documentary’ and goes as far as to deem it an ‘Oscar-worthy delight.’