“To dance the dance is like to fish in the rice field with other people, because that’s what we do,” a Cambodian teenager tells us toward the start of the documentary Dancing Across Borders. His name is Sokvannara, or Sy, and in time he’ll be a ballet star in the States. Sy’s a hardworking good boy who never stops smiling. “There’s something very special about this individual, and there’s also something very honest about him,” one instructor says; another offers, “He’s a charmer. He’s a sweetheart. Everybody falls in love with him. He picked up the language.”
The film spends an inordinate amount of time with people talking about what a good dancer Sy is, as opposed to showing him actually dancing, which we mostly get in brief clips and still photos rather than in full numbers. The film isn’t about dance so much as it is about the virtues of assimilation. Sy’s American sponsor—Anne Bass, also the film’s director, who appears sitting or standing next to Sy in many shots, perfectly poised—remembers that upon first seeing him, she thought, “Oh dear, he looks helpless. I guess he’s my responsibility now.” Her responsibility goes on to become an honor student at an American high school, the most important part to him being that he “finally got to laugh at the white kid’s jokes!” The film sells success in America, hard; an adult’s early speech about the future—“The future is in the children’s hands…We have to dare them to dream”—soon leads to Sy crying, “I’m going to America, yay!” and shaking a fist.
We’ve no sense of struggle, nor difficulty, nor repetition in Sy’s social life, nor, for that matter, in his life in the studio; the tedious rehearsal process that actually makes up creating a number is alien to the film’s happy-dynamo sphere. As a result, when people use words like “plié” we have no idea what they mean. We also lose the sense of how a number develops, as well as how an accomplished ballet dancer’s performance appears.
Including that material would have given Sy’s efforts more context; it also would have, quite usefully, revealed his shortcomings. When we first see him in a full piece, about midway through the film, his jumps are light while his steps are chunky, overt, and disconnected, without the momentum of one propelling the next. His feet bounce, but the struggle appears how to integrate the rest of his body. He improves as time passes, yet his style remains far more assertion than exhilaration, and even in the last performance we see he still hasn’t figured out quite what to do with his arms. He likely deserves to dance for the major ballet companies that select him (clumsy as his moves are, they punch with blunt force), and the fact that he’s progressed to this level from novice status in less than five years is remarkable. But to ceaselessly rave about both his style and his character, as seemingly everyone the film interviews does, feels dishonest.
Dancing Across Borders ends with a freeze-frame of Sy dancing. Not only has this device been one of the most creatively bereft ways to end a film for eons, it’s redundant here, as the film’s image of Sy has been fixed all along.