Heartwarming "Dancing" docu takes no artistic leaps

Thu Mar 25, 2010 7:55pm EDT
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Talk about having a guardian angel.

Sokvannara Sar was a 16-year-old dancer in his native Cambodia when socialite and arts patroness Anne Bass happened to see him performing at a temple in Angkor Wat. Enraptured by the young man's talent, she later tracked him down and offered to sponsor him on a trip to New York to audition for the prestigious School of American Ballet.

"Dancing Across Borders," the debut film by Bass, documents the resulting story. The First Run Features release opens Friday.

Despite the fact that she served on the school's board, they turned down the young dancer, who had precious little experience with conventional ballet. So Bass hired legendary ballet teacher Olga Kostritzky to give him a crash course. Within months, he was accepted by SAB, from which he graduated five years later. He won an apprenticeship with Seattle's prestigious Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he joined the corps de ballet. He also managed to compete in and reach the semifinals of the world-famous International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.

A dramatic story, to be sure, but not exactly grippingly told by its first-time filmmaker, who initially began videotaping her subject so that she could keep his relatives back home apprised of his progress. The resulting mixture of performance footage and interviews with the young man and the people involved in his story -- including such renowned dance-world figures as Jock Soto and Peter Boal -- is best appreciated as a heartwarming true-life tale rather than as a serious examination of the cross-cultural issues that are inevitably raised.

Sar is indeed a charismatic camera subject as well as a compelling performer, and the film undoubtedly will be appreciated by dance aficionados. But it's hard not to wish that his story had been told by a more experienced, not to mention objective, filmmaker.