Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cambodia to Carolina – a film review

Sy accompanied by Philip Glass
When the money of the superwealthy is used to help individuals living in poverty, something very strange happens.  Some people get all teary-eyed and fill their heads and their Face Book pages with sentimental commentary about how things maybe aren’t so bad after all, maybe it’s not such a cold cruel world, maybe we should stop filling the papers with accidents and political shenanigans and tell more good news stories instead.

At the other extreme are those who sneer at the do-gooders and accuse them of stroking their own egos.  Michael Jackson used to fly kids in to his Neverland to make a dream come true here and there, and you realized a hundred kids could eat for a week on the cost of the helicopter fuel alone.  TV programs organize around a dying kid’s last wish.  All lovely stuff, as long as you focus on the lucky winner and ignore the fact that in the United States alone 15 million kids live in what we delicately refer to as “food-insecure” homes.

An interesting moral dilemma.  The glass half full side is somebody’s lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  Glass half empty is it looks for all the world like it’s not about the kids but about cutting off a couple days from some rich bastard’s time in purgatory.  It’s all in where you stand on the issue.

This endless dilemma of whether to lift an individual here and there or spread the benefits more generally came up in Dancing Across Borders,  a film I watched last night about a New York patron of the arts – ballet, chiefly – who came across a kid dancing in rural Cambodia and saw his potential.  Next thing you know, she’s bringing him to New York, getting him lessons with Olga Kostritzky, and making him a star.

Watch the film and leave all the baggage behind I just laid out, if you can.  It’ll bring a tear or two to your eye.  The kid in question is Sokvannara Sar, known as “Sy” (pronounced “see”).  He’s a beautiful person.  Warm smile, dancer’s hands and feet, talent for days.  And the filmmaker and philanthropist in question is a woman named Anne Bass.  Get the Netflix DVD and watch the extras.  The interviews with Ms. Bass tell an inspiring story.  She happened to have tons of film of Sy from his earliest days, all through his training.  It wasn’t long before friends persuaded her she had a great documentary film, a great story to tell.  The trailer is available here.
Sy at 14

It is a great story.  Poor kid from the country learns to dance so he can make a dollar here and there to help feed his dirt-poor family.  Gets a full scholarship to study ballet without knowing the first thing about the art form.  Says yes – who in his position would turn down an all-expenses paid trip to America?

He’s not particularly crazy about dancing ballet.  It’s an alien art form.  Khmer dance is like Indian dance; it’s all about feet on the ground, stamp stamp.  Tambourines, bang bang.   Ballet is all about throwing yourself through the air and landing without breaking your ankles and toes.
Before Cambodians dance, they thank their ancestors for allowing them to live and celebrate the spiritual nature of what they are engaged in.  Ballet, like opera, is all about entertaining people who wear gowns and tuxedos and drive up in limousines.  Technically, both are dance forms, but in some ways they seem to have originated on different planets.

Those who know the world of ballet will probably tell you that while Sy’s story is inspiring, and he’s unquestionably a joy to watch, there is no shortage of good ballet dancers in the world.   What the fuss would seem to be about is the fact this guy is from Cambodia.  Isn’t that special.  But what should not be missed in this defense of the poor against imperialist elitists running roughshod over the Third World is the fact that Sy accomplished in half the time what it takes most students of ballet.  He is an extraordinarily fast learner.  Peter Boal, onetime principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and director of the Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet Company who took Sy on and fostered his journey in becoming a world-class dancer, speaks of him as “one in a thousand,” the kind of dancer ballet teachers dream of.

Some have complained about the sheer repetitiveness of the dance scenes.  It seems like hours of practice, practice, practice.  I suppose if you’re not a lover of ballet this will not work for you, but I never tired of watching.  Not for a minute.  And I appreciated that the repetitions, all the shots of landings that didn’t quite work, all the focus on detail, conveyed how much endurance it took this young man to get to the break-through point.

Some kids complain about being “tied to the piano bench.”  We don’t do that to kids anymore, mostly.  Others tell you they are eternally grateful for hard-driving parents and teachers and recognize that without external discipline one simply does not become a world-class artist.  All the more powerful is this story of a kid from a fisher-folk family whose father wishes to this day he had become a lawyer instead and who had to find his own discipline deep from within.  Lonely teenage years spent with harshly demanding instructors, people who tell you bloodying your feet is just part of the job. The film leaves out the fact that Sy has a crisis at some point and drops out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and decides he’s had enough, that he’s been dancing for others all his life and it’s time for him to start living for himself.

But that’s not the end of the story, either.  He realized at some point ballet had become too much a part of his life to abandon.  He now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and dances for the Carolina Ballet.  

I realize I’ve wandered beyond the film documentary here in writing this review.  But I do that without apology.  Part of what makes a film, or any other art form, worth while is its ability to take you outside itself and make you want to know more.  When it was done, I sat and watched all the extras.  Twice.

I’ll admit I gave some serious thought to the notion this was about a rich white lady with a vanity project.  In the end, though, it was the beauty of the art of the ballet that captured my attention. What music does for the ears and painting does for the eyes, dance, in my view, when it is done right, reaches the gut.  Its raw material is the human body.  Not all of us have it in us to express the concepts of grace and dignity and passion and majesty with our hands and our feet and our hips and our shoulders and the tilt of our head.  When we come upon those who do, it’s only appropriate, in my view, to give them our full attention and our gratitude.

photo credit: from Netflix page: credited elsewhere to

The film actually came out in 2010 and has been extensively reviewed:
I am grateful it has finally been released on Netflix.

1 comment:

Emil Ems said...

When reading this post I recall an eternal truth: great artists almost always start out with the help of a Maecenas. No need to feel ashamed for helping just one little Cambodian instead of giving a general development grant to Cambodia!