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Dancing Across Borders

April 6, 2010

It took me some time to digest everything coming at me from Dancing Across Borders. Anne Bass, the ‘director/executive producer/producer’ of the film is a graduate of Vassar and the visit to her Alma Mater to present her first film allowed for a unique experience for me, a current senior. Not only would we be screening her film with a question and answer session, our afternoon ballet class would have Sokvannara (Sy) Sar, the focus of the documentary, in attendance and taught by his first and most important teacher, Olga Kostritzky. And as Anne Bass was sitting and watching the class progress we were essential inside the documentary itself. It was a thrilling, terrifying and ultimately very grounding experience to have before watching the film.

Anne Bass, Credit: Time Magazine

When I first heard about Anne Bass I wasn’t sure who she was or why the college was so excited to present the work of someone who had just created their first film. It wasn’t long before a somewhat unfortunate fact surfaced. Divorced from a Texan billionaire, Anne Bass was in possession of quite a bit of money. Now that Vassar College has lost about a third of its endowment, struggling along with many peer institutions, showing interest in a rich alumnus seems like a great idea. The unfortunate part in all this is how it affected the presentation of the film even before the projector was warm. It was difficult to look past the professional photographer, who had never been on campus before, snapping picture after picture of the bubbly conversation between Anne and the president of Vassar.

Olga Kostritzky, Credit: dancingacrossborders.net

Olga Kostritzky is one of the main figures in the documentary. Upon Sy’s arrival to America, Anne sets him up with Olga for private lessons so that he can gain some technique before joining the School of American Ballet. The myths surrounding Olga, the founder of the boys program at SAB, began immediately from other Vassar students who had taken class with her or from the ballet school. We knew before she arrived that she was never caught without her giant sunglasses, except one day when no one at her studios recognized her. The class started innocently enough. The thick Russian accent emanating softly from her short stocky form told a cute story culminating in the fact that she was wearing two right ballet slippers. After a few exercises at the bar, she told one boy that, being tall, attractive and with nice legs, he could make it as a professional ballet dancer if he would only close his fifth position. She told another that he needed to dance with his arms and that they shouldn’t stay limp at his sides. She was criticizing the two best ballet dancers in our class who rarely got a comment from our current teacher. Upon realizing this, the masochistic side of ballet was suddenly and unshakably present. I wanted her to criticize me, to tell me what I was doing wrong and be considered worth fixing. I was also terrified of what she would say and whether I would be able to fix what she wanted me to.

Upon completely failing to execute a simple balancé combination with stiff legs and the wrong arms, and at this point I had started to check out from the raging psychological game in my head, she merely looked at me and said ‘You were late.’ I nodded and walked away feeling like a joke. I have never really thought it was possible to become a ballet dancer so late in life but for some reason this all effected me very much. As the film was played, I could feel myself in Sy’s place with both jealousy and sympathy. Later in the locker room I was told that Olga had ‘chilled out’ over the years. One student recounted how she would criticize her pupil’s technique along with their lives in general. The reason a dancer wouldn’t close their fifth position completely was, to her, because they didn’t care enough to, and if they didn’t care enough about fifth position they definitely didn’t care about the rest of their lives and the reason they were failing in life was because they failed to close in a perfect fifth position. On one occasion, I was told, this rhetoric made a girl cry and Olga responded by laughing. The shocking part of it all is that this is commonplace for ballet and most ballet dancers will tell you that if you can’t stand the back handed compliments and constant mental torment, you clearly weren’t meant to be a ballet dancer.

Credit: dancingacrossborders.net

So then as the theater settled down and the lights dimmed, I was fairly aware of who had created the film and the nature behind Sy’s private teacher. But there was another layer that contributed to my preconceptions of the film. With a title like ‘Dancing Across Borders,’ I knew that cultural sensitivity would be immediately measured by the audience. Vassar has a somewhat diverse atmosphere and a community that is quickly defensive when it comes to issues of race, class and gender. The screening occurred during the same week as students protested a campus-wide spring ‘Luau’ because it was insensitive and insulting to the cultural traditions of Hawaiian people. This happening just days after objections to a ‘Free Weezy’ dance party for the perpetuation of racist black stereotypes by way of Lil Wayne as well as continued disbelief at a fundraiser challenging donors to walk around the quad with a bucket of water on their head titled ‘Are you stronger than a Nigerian woman?’ So it was no wonder that thoughts of imperialism and the ‘white man’s burden’ along with a discerning eye for cultural injustice would permeate the reception of the film.

Sokvannara (Sy) Sar, Credit: Rex Tranter

So how did the documentary pass the test? I’m really not sure. In a sense, the film stayed very true to reality and did very little to paint Sy’s journey through ballet as a triumphant or extraordinary. At times it seemed to try. It mentioned how incredible his cramps were or how unbelievable it was that would learn ballet so quickly. But this was all overshadowed by Sy’s almost complete lack of interest in ballet. Almost before this had become apparent the film seemed to try and justify itself as it progressed. In it’s attempt to not undermine his Cambodian upbringing, it left me feeling as though Sy might have been better off just staying home with his family. There were two sides constantly juxtaposed and awfully confusing. Half of the film included footage of Sy working very hard to perfect his technique. It showed him learning from Olga and connecting with fellow company members. And his performances were incredibly beautiful and striking. But the other half was very stark. Sy admits that he didn’t care much for ballet when he first saw it but that he would give it a try. He talks of getting tired of Olga and the practices. During one of his performances his parents are quoted around his body saying that they don’t really understand the ballet or really care if he is doing it. There are shots of him walking around the city alone and talking about his lack of friends and how hard it was for him to break into American culture. He even mentions once about how he doesn’t feel as though he belongs in America but he so seldom goes home that he doesn’t feel like he belongs there either. He is quoted as saying that sometimes you have to do what you have to do and not what you want to do. The most enchanting performances, including a hauntingly beautiful solo performed alongside Philip Glass, are when he is told to channel loneliness and homesickness. And so as the final credits begin to roll, as Sy is reaching and pulling his body across the stage I am left not with inspiration but with unexpected sadness. It seems that Anne Bass has brought this boy from his poor family in Cambodia, introducing a path into the riches of America through ballet only to drop his identity in the ocean somewhere on the flight over, and even as he learns the technique beautifully, he is never truly passionate about it. For an art form that professes unbelievable beauty, dedication and passion, it is bewildering and saddening to see it performed so captivatingly by someone who never really wanted to be there in the first place. The art is created not for the sake of art, but for the sake of leaving Cambodia and seeking a better life. Perhaps the inspiration is supposed to come from him struggling diligently to become a beautiful ballet dancer. I suppose this would have worked if he actually wanted to be one.

Although this would seem to denounce the film, I honestly believe it should be viewed by everyone. It is an incredibly fascinating work not only in its content but in its mere existence. It causes one to question many aspects of art and dance. The film was promoted and distributed primarily because of how much money the director of the film has and she could be considered a ‘rich artist.’ She did not struggle to create this film and she never had to seek approval from art critics or grant and fellowship donors. Does this change the authenticity of a work of art? Had she enough money to sponsor Sy but not enough to make the film, would it have turned out differently? Is there a direct correlation between money and integrity of art? In the same vein, Sy’s performances were incredible even though he wasn’t passionate about them. Does one actually need to be passionate about an art form to create beautiful work? If not, does that not undermine the work of so many people who care more than anything about the art they are pursing? Isn’t that terrifying? I don’t think Anne should be criticized for wanting to help Sy and his family but when all the pieces come together, the inspiration quickly falls away and I am left with the strange story of a wealthy woman who chose a boy she liked watching dance and taught him beautifully to watch him dance ballet. He, knowing how much this could help his family, accepted what she was giving him but all the while never knowing for sure if he even liked what she had given.

Although it certainly did not set out to do so, Anne’s film portrays a perspective on dance and art that I have never seen before. One with such a lack of self-awareness or censorship that the audience is given a rare view of dance that is not often seen. It may not be great art but it is definitely a piece of work that is both hyper-realistic and unintentionally beyond disillusionment. A strange story definitely worth seeing with your own eyes.

Credit: Erin Baiano

March 31st, 4:00pm
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 5:35 am

    Thank you for this thoughtfully written essay. I was wondering if you ever answered your own questions:

    Does one actually need to be passionate about an art form to create beautiful work? If not, does that not undermine the work of so many people who care more than anything about the art they are pursing? Isn’t that terrifying?

    I would really like to know what your answers are to your questions.

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