Anne Bass and the Cambodian Ballerino

Photo: Patrick McMullan

In 2000, philanthropist Anne Bass was on a trip to Cambodia with the World Monuments Fund when she saw Sokvannara “Sy” Sar dance. She was so taken by his performance—Bass is a longtime supporter of ballet—that she helped get him admitted into the School of American Ballet, which ultimately led him to a spot at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Dancing Across Borders, her documentary film about the experience, started out as videos she sent home to Sy’s family. She met up with Chris Rovzar after her daily dance class on the Upper West Side.

What was it about Sy’s performance that spoke to you?
He has complete charisma onstage and has a very natural musicality and grace. His expression of joy is really infectious. I just couldn’t get his performance out of my head.

And yet his parents wanted him to be a doctor.
Like many parents of children who are artists, they have other ambitions for them. In this country, it’s very different because parents worry about their children being happy. In a country that’s poor, they worry about what is going to help support the family the most.

It seemed like he didn’t really know what he was in for.
I honestly think that he was in shock for the first two years.

Why do you think he stayed?
I think he realized how much it would be able to help his family. I also think he was intrigued by ballet finally. Criticisms I’ve heard are from people who say, “How could you have imposed your ambition on him?” And that’s not really the way I felt. It’s something that I thought he would be able to do. I said to him, practically from the first three months, “If you want to quit at any time to just go to school here, just academic school, it’s fine with me.”

The beautiful outdoor shots, is that your estate up in Connecticut?
[Bass was held captive in a robbery there in 2007] Mmm hmm.

Did they ever find out who held you hostage?
I don’t really want to talk about that.

You’ve referred to yourself as a perfectionist. How did you feel when he temporarily dropped out of ballet last fall?
It was really hard to be a spectator. At the end of November, he thought he wanted to quit dancing. When I got the call, I was at a film festival. I cried all night. But then I watched the film, and I thought, You know what, this boy is so wonderful and he has such good character, he is going to be fine no matter what. About five weeks later, he called and said, “I just realized that I thought I had been dancing for other people. I thought I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Then I realized I had been doing what I wanted to do all along.”

The film plays at Quad Cinema March 26 through April 1.

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Anne Bass and the Cambodian Ballerino