Opens Fri., April 28
Ah, the puffed-out special- interest piece. Every now and then a feature-length documentary, touting a subject that could barely fill a 10-minute slot on 20/20 mysteriously winds up in theatrical release. Sometimes the topic is potentially rich. The one in Dancing Across Borders is. When socialite and arts patron Anne Bass first happened upon Sokvannara “Sy” Sor, he was a 16-year-old dancer languishing away in Angkor Wat, strutting his ancient moves in temples for locals and tourists. Like many benevolent, rich white people before and after her, she rescued this native from a life of almost certain misery. One shlep to New York later, Sy is stunning those at the prestigious School of American Ballet, who accept and mold him.
To her credit, Bass, who also directed, keeps the self-congratulation mostly subliminal, letting herself wander around on-screen but surrendering the limelight to Sy and his teacher, a caring but tasking Russian right out of a bad movie. Dancing Across Borders is thus open for an exploration of cultural assimilation—an ambivalent look at the pros and cons of snatching a prodigy from their native ethnicity and forcing them to accept another. Trouble is, Sy proves annoyingly well- adjusted. There were language barriers and fits of loneliness at first. But he got over them. Ditto the strain of near-constant practice and tutelage. Everything worked out just fine.
It must be disappointing for documentarians when their subject refuses to produce drama—or at least when said documentarian proves to be uninterested in much beyond basic exposition. Early on, Bass delves into cultural differences—how dancing in the East stresses its historical and spiritual roots, whereas in the West it’s more about craft and entertainment. But once Sy reaches the New World, such themes are dropped so as to merely watch him master both ballet and America. (“I finally get to laugh at the white kids’ jokes,” he boasts late in. Assimilation complete!)
Throughout, Bass belies an inability to distinguish between what’s interesting to those involved and what’s interesting to audiences. Thick slices of under-edited training footage are met with thin slices of performance footage, with nonstop, only mildly interesting gabbing over top. It’s not enough to have a story. A filmmaker must know how to approach it, what to focus on and how to give the rough material some shape. Dancing Across Borders offers only this: A talented kid excelled at a difficult craft. That’s nice.