Saturday, January 17, 2009

From local streets to world stage

From local streets to world stage
Written by Peter Olszewski
Thursday, 15 January 2009

Anne Bass's biopic of street performer-turned-danseur noble Sokvannara Sar, which debuted at Siem Reap's Sofitel Hotel, chronicles the unlikely rise of an exciting new ballet talent

Sokvannara Sar rehearsing with Phillip Glass for Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado last year.

SIEM Reap scored a world-first in the international high-society stakes on Sunday night when Anne Bass, the Manhattan socialite, philanthropist, art patron and ex-wife of billionaire investor Sid Bass, debuted as a film director at a private preview at the Sofitel Hotel.

Bass is vice president of the Centre for Khmer Studies, and while in town for the annual board meeting she took the opportunity to exclusively screen her full-length exquisite and idiosyncratic biopic, Dancing Across Borders, about the transformation of Cambodian street dancer Sokvannara Sar into a rising ballet star on the US and European cultural circuit.

Sokvannara Sar's mother and family mingled with millionaires at the screening of the documentary-style movie, which unfolded a modern-day Eliza Doolittle-esque saga: wealthy US matron comes to Cambodia, spots a potentially talented US$30-a-month street dancer, plucks him from his Cambodian village and whisks him to Manhattan, teaches him English, educates him, trains him as a ballet dancer and launches him into society.


Anne Bass told the Post she figured Sokvannara Sar could be a ballet star the moment she saw him, and likened his emergence in the ballet world to that of the notoriously impulsive Russian, Rudolph Nureyev.

Enormous talent
"I was visiting Cambodia with the World Monuments Fund in January 2000, and they worked with the Wat Bo Dance School directed by a woman called Boran Kim," Bass said.

"They performed at the Preah Kahn temple, and Sokvannara Sar was the lead in the Fisherman's Dance. I was very struck by his performance, and I just could not get the images of him and his performance out of my mind.

"I've been a big supporter of ballet all my life. I dance myself, actually, and I've seen thousands of ballet performances. And this boy had something about him that just got to me. He was very charismatic, very naturally musical.

"But in Cambodia, dance is really about the women. Women take the men's role, and men are relegated to a very secondary position, although that's changing.

"I kept thinking that he was just such an enormous talent and it was going to go to waste. I have this belief that is, you see talent, you have to nurture it. It's a responsibility."

Training in America
Bass shouldered her responsibility and took Sokvannara Sar to the US where, for most of this decade, he has slowly and, at times, painfully been inculcated into the arcane rituals of high-end ballet performance.

A further obstacle for the ingenue was that although he was only 16 when he arrived in the US, he was well beyond the age of kids traditionally selected for ballet training.

"The only other dancer I know who started as late as him is Rudolph Nureyev," Bass said. "And he was very similar in that he, too, had been a folk dancer, but in a Russian province."

The movie also features lots of performance footage culminating in a performance last year at the Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado, when Sokvannara Sar danced to the musical accompaniment of the legendary Phillip Glass.

Having previewed the film exclusively in Siem Reap, Bass is now figuring out how to premiere and launch Dancing Across Borders worldwide.

"I think I will probably premiere it through the festival circuit, but I haven't really decided yet which festivals would be best, or the best way to distribute it," she said.
"I don't want it to just be considered a ballet film. It's much more than that."

Phnom Penh Post

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