15 Minutes With… Anne Bass

sokvannara sar
Sokvannara (Sy) Sar performing Oberon in a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Photo: Rex Tranter

On a trip to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia in January 2000, Anne Bass came across a sixteen-year-old boy named Sokvannara Sar who moved her immensely with his amazing natural charm and grace as a dancer. As a longtime devotee of the world of dance, Bass felt compelled to give this boy the opportunity to leave his home and follow a dream that he could not yet have fully imagined.

Ten years later, Bass brings us her first film, “Dancing Across Borders,” which documents the extraordinary journey the boy embarked upon, one which took him from the serene countryside of Cambodia to the demanding world of American ballet. It’s a fascinating, multi-layered story which any filmmaker would want to sink her teeth into, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having done it better than Anne Bass.

As she prepares for a multi-city tour of the film, Ms. Bass takes a moment to speak with us about her passion for ballet and how she made the documentary.

Dancing Across Borders will screen in San Francisco at the Opera Plaza Cinema, and in Berkeley at the Landmark Shattuck, from April 30 – May 6, 2010. Visit dancingacrossborders.net/screenings.php for more details about screening times.

anne bass
Sokvannara Sar and Anne Bass in New York City, March 23, 2010
Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images North America

Damion: When did your passion for ballet begin?

Anne Bass: I began studying ballet as a child, and I still take a class everyday. I’ve been very involved with many forms of ballet. I’m particularly interested in the choreography of George Balanchine, and I understand how important the School of American Ballet was to him. And recently I have become interested in the work of young choreographers, particularly Benjamin Millepied and Christopher Welldon, who I believe has done some work for San Francisco Ballet.
DM: Yes, the world premiere of his “Ghosts” was in San Francisco about two months ago.

AB: Oh, I haven’t seen it, how was it?
DM: It was fantastic. His work is new to me, but I’m looking forward to seeing more.

AB: He’s really great. I haven’t seen his work for San Francisco Ballet in San Francisco, but I’ve seen it when they’ve been at City Center in New York. Chris has done especially good pieces for San Francisco. He must just love the company.

DM: So, how do you go from you know Balanchine to Cambodia?

AB: I was in Cambodia with the World Monuments Fund, and I certainly wasn’t there looking for dancers. I just happened to be at a performance at Preah Khan, and the dancer in the film, Sy (Sokvannara Sar), was performing with a traditional Cambodian dance troupe. He was doing a folk dance. And it sounds unlikely that you could see a folk dancer and think he has the ability to become a ballet dancer, but there was just something about his performance that stayed with me.

DM: How so?

AB: He was very, very charismatic. He projected to an audience and he moved really naturally. He was very musical. He had great proportions. He just had what you need to have, what you have to have, for a dancer. I don’t think it’s just limited to one form such as folk dance or ballet. If you’re a dancer, it’s all about moving.

DM: How quickly does it take you to sort of see a dancer and say, oh wow, this is an amazing person? When do you realize that somebody has that really gift?

AB: I’ve seen so many dancers over the years, and there are dancers who are really fine dancers that you enjoy watching, but there are very few that just hit you in a certain way. If I were to list some of the ones that have struck me that way — I don’t mean that I would compare Sy to Baryshnikov, but anyone who saw Baryshnikov, even if they didn’t know what they were seeing, would know he was great. You don’t have to be a great connoisseur to see that, because a really great dancer just connects to an audience.

DM: Did you find that after he received formal training in America that he still kept that unique quality that you saw in Cambodia, or did anything change in his stage presence?

AB: Oh no, he completely kept it. That’s the one thing that was constant throughout. I remember someone said that even when Sy was still learning and not doing steps perfectly quite yet, one’s eye just would immediately go to him out of all the other people in a studio. I don’t know what it is. It’s just one of those kind of indescribable things.

DM: That’s fascinating. Had you even met Sy formally before you brought him to New York?

AB: No. I really didn’t even know his name although everybody that was in my group remarked on the talent of the boy who had the lead in a folk dance. It wasn’t until I had been back in the United States for a few months that I had the idea of inviting him to come to New York to see if he would be interested in studying ballet. At that point I wrote to his teacher through the World Monuments Fund to extend an invitation.

DM: You thought he could become a great ballet dancer?

AB: It wasn’t that I wanted to impose my idea of something beautiful on him. I think some people have misunderstood my gesture towards him as being, you know, some colonial thing of imposing the ideals of one world on another world, but it’s far from that. It’s just that when I was in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge had left the country in terrible shape, with the arts in complete disarray, and there was really no future for Sy to express his talent there.

DM: Why is that?

AB: They do have dancers but, in Khmer dance/classical dance, all the classical roles are taken by women. So, in other words, when the young girls are training, they’re divided into two groups — the girls that dance the female roles and the girls that dance the male roles. So for men there’s only one classical role and that’s Hanuman, the Monkey, in which role you wear a mask and that’s it. And Sy was doing folk dancing well. Folk dancing is charming for what he was doing at the time, but there’s no career. It’s something that you do as a teenager for fun but there’s no real career.

DM: I suppose nobody knows what their future holds, but I isn’t that kind of a common question for dancers – how do you create a long career.

AB: Ballet dancers have an extremely short career and they really need to think almost from the beginning what they’re going to do for their next career because obviously it’s limited. Most male dancers stop in their mid-forties. I think Nureyev danced until he was fifty-something but, you know, those of us who saw him in the last years — I mean, he should have stopped sooner.

But Baryshnikov is still dancing and he’s over sixty. But this is a perfect example of someone with charisma. I saw him once maybe ten years ago and he was doing a piece — it sounds so strange — he did a piece in which he was literally in a chair in which he propelled himself around the stage.

DM: Really?

AB: Yes, but it was as if the chair became another appendage. In other words his feet were moving and his arms were moving and whatever. It wasn’t like he was in a wheelchair wheeling himself. His arms and his legs were flying in the chair. He held ones attention thoughout. It was stunning.
DM: Oh, wow.

AB: It was the most incredible thing.
DM: Do you think Sy will continue to dance for long?

AB: He thought that he wanted to quit dancing, and then he did. He felt he was dancing for everyone but himself, and then he quit. I remember him saying to me when he quit, ‘Well, I just want to do what I want to.’ And I’m in the kind of maternal role there because his parents are on the other side of the world, and as a parent you have to let your children decide and make their own mistakes and learn on their own. So it was excruciating but I didn’t say anything to him. Then about five weeks later he called me back and said, ‘You know, I thought I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t until I quit dancing that I realized I had been doing what I wanted to do all along.’ So, it was a great thing for him to go through.
DM: Were you surprised?

AB: It’s something that I had actually been feeling kind of building but I did not want to interfere. It has been great seeing that kind of renewed commitment he has now, where he really understands what he wants. It’s a very valuable and beautiful thing for him to have learned I think.
DM: That is wonderful.

AB: But ballet is a love-hate kind of thing because it’s a very, very difficult art form to master. Many people never really master it. You have to work so intensively at mastering it. It’s like anything that is terribly demanding. You think of the Olympics and gymnastics and things like that where people — I mean it’s basically their life, and you do make sacrifices and give up many things to do it.
DM: When did you decide that you were going to make the documentary?

AB: I really didn’t intend to make a documentary. I bought a video camera after Sy had been here about a year in order to report his classroom progress to his parents on the other side of the world. I would film him when he was taking private classes with Olga Kostritzky. One isn’t normally allowed in the ballet studio, it’s too disruptive to have all the parents in there with their cameras. But because he had these private classes I could go and film him.

Olga Kostritzky
Sokvannara Sar and Olga Kostritzky in New York City, March 23, 2010
Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images North America

DM: And the filming continued for a few years?

AB: And then he was in the Varna ballet competition after he’d been here about five years, and a lot of my friends had been following him and wanted to know how he had done at Varna. So when I came back I found this young filmmaker to link together the official footage of his performances, and when I saw how easy it was on Final Cut Pro, I said, ‘Well, listen, I have this classroom footage, and I have television footage from when he performed in Cambodia for the first time, and I have photographs and whatever.’ So we put together this kind of modest thing and showed our friends, and we had artists and art critics — there were a few dancers there, but mainly art world people. They were just completely riveted by this look inside the ballet world. They said for them it’s just a world they had no idea about.
DM: And that’s when you decided to make a real film of of it?

AB: I understood that the story and the footage I had provided a real opportunity to see inside that world in a way they hadn’t been aware of before. So I asked some ballet friends and they said ‘Oh yes, I think this is a great story and you should try it.’ They recommended a few people to me for director/producer, and we just started working.
DM: How did you become the director?

AB: I didn’t really intend to be the director. I was just the co-producer. We had to start right away once I made the decision to make a film because Sy was going back to Cambodia for his annual visit to his family. So we threw everything together and went to Cambodia and did that filming, and once everything settled down and that was behind us I realized that I was expecting someone else to know how to tell the story. So Catherine Tatge, who was my co-producer director was extremely gracious and she said ‘I really think you ought to try to do this,’ and she said ‘I’ll help you in any way I can.’ And she did. So that’s how that happened.
DM: It strikes me that you were learning how to put a documentary together at the same time that Sy was learning English and ballet. Your journey through it together is so much a part of the story, which is so interesting.

AB: Right. I was learning and I loved collaborating with the other people working on the film- a group of very talented professionals who were so generous to and patient with a first time filmmaker.

Being in the film and also being the Director was often strange and quite a challenge for me. I would have preferred not to be in the film at all, and in fact in the first rough cuts I was in it far less. Virtually everyone who saw those rough cuts felt I needed to be in it more so finally I trusted the editors to tell me where they felt it was essential for me to be on screen. Also, as Sy’s friend, I felt very protective of him which is one reason there is very little of his life out of the ballet studio. He was generous in letting us tell his story but I felt there were limits. Several people have said they wanted to know more. Maybe that will be a sequel.

Some people have even criticized the fact that I’ve made the film and I’m in the film, but I think it would be worse if I had tried to find someone to do the film and have them tell the story. But I think I’m in the film as much I need to be. That’s just my opinion. You know that I’m the person who got him here, and you don’t really need to know what my background in ballet is. There are all kinds of decisions that you have to make with a film.
DM: Of course.

AB: Some people wanted to know more about Sy’s personal life. We could have done that, but then you would have seen less of him dancing. There are just all of these things that a film critic or somebody else might think you haven’t thought of, but in fact there are such deliberate decisions that you spend hours and days and weeks agonizing over. Like how much to put into this, how little and so forth and so on. When you’re making a documentary, the discipline of just trying to stay focused with what you’re trying to communicate is really important, and you can’t let yourself be led down side roads.
DM: What did your friends and family think about you doing this?

AB: It was, in fact, like having another child. My children were grown. And I must say when I invited Sy to come here, it wasn’t that I was — I mean, I was naïve I suppose, but it wasn’t that I was being irresponsible. As a board member of the School of American Ballet I had seen how other foreign students have managed, and basically I thought he would come to this country, he would enter the School of American Ballet, he would be in the dormitory, I would see him, check up on him, but basically he’d be like any other foreign student. I mean, each student at school doesn’t have a local sponsor who acts as a parent, you know.
DM: Right.

AB: Well, Sy hadn’t been here long before I realized that that just wasn’t going to work. There were his short vacations when he needed someplace to go, and his English was nonexistent. So we had to deal with that. And also most of the students there already knew ballet when they came. But for someone who didn’t know English, didn’t know the vocabulary of ballet, didn’t understand Western culture — everything was so different for him.
DM: It sounds like a major challenge.

AB: I did feel a great deal of responsibility for him and it did take a lot of time. But for the most part my friends were so helpful, and they would include him for dinner or invite him to do things, and they were fantastic. But while I was doing the film I basically disappeared. I barely saw any of my friends and family. I joke and say I’m looking forward to becoming reacquainted with all of them because it was really time consuming. I basically did nothing else for two years.
DM: From everything that I’ve read, everybody loves it. I’m so happy that you’re going to be showing it here. Ballet is very important in San Francisco!

AB: It would give me great satisfaction if many of the Ballet board and supporters were able to see the film. It was shown a year ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sy was at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle at the time, and practically the entire company came, and many of the board members. And afterwards I remember talking to the chairman of the board and he said, ‘I’m so interested in ballet, I’ve been to classes, I’ve been to rehearsals, I’ve been to performances. It wasn’t until I saw this film that I really got a grasp on how it –meaning the ballet world- works.’ And he said I think every board member should see this film. I hope they do.
DM: I hope so too. It seems like there’s something in it to inspire a lot of different kinds of people.

AB: Of course what one takes away from the film depends in large part on what one brings to it, but I hope it will inspire younger people to stick to their goals and to keep trying no matter how difficult or far away the goal may seem. I hope it will also inspire people, no matter what their means, even if they are very modest, to help talent whenever they see it. I hope it will make ballet more accessible to people that maybe thought it is an elite art form and encourage them to take another look. And lastly, I hope it will make viewers more interested in other cultures from which we can learn so much.
Further Information: Dancing Across Borders [dancingacrossborders.net]