HAVING spent the day climbing ancient temples in debilitating jungle heat, Anne Bass didn’t want to leave her hotel room again. Not even for a dance recital at Preah Khan, the 12th-century complex that is one of the jewels of Angkor, in Cambodia.
Sokvannara Sar taking part in the ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria.
For Ms. Bass, a mainstay of the society pages and a longtime arts patron, dance is a passion. She returned to ballet class when her daughters, now grown, began lessons; at 68, she still attends religiously. But this performance, in January 2000, seemed one obligation too many.
“I said, ‘I just can’t, I’m too tired,’ ” she recalled this month, while sipping tea in the Greenwich Village studio of her companion of 15 years, the painter Julian Lethbridge. Ms. Bass was in Cambodia with the World Monuments Fund, which had arranged the recital she was about to skip. But at the last minute something — she still can’t figure out what — sent her out the door.
That snap decision started her and a young man named Sokvannara Sar on a cross-cultural adventure that, improbably, turned a poor Cambodian teenager into a ballet dancer and, just as improbably, Ms. Bass into a documentary filmmaker.
In her “Dancing Across Borders,” which opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and then barnstorms through more than a dozen other cities, Mr. Sar travels from the rice paddies of his small village to Ms. Bass’s sprawling estate in Connecticut; from a dance studio in New York to the outdoor stage of the famed ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria; and, ultimately, to Seattle, where he joins the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Along the way the film’s talking heads — ballet-world stars like Jock Soto and Peter Boal, Cambodian culture experts and Ms. Bass herself — elucidate Mr. Sar’s journey. “Dancing Across Borders” also shows the irrepressible ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky at work as she points Mr. Sar’s feet, turns out his hips and teaches his 16-year-old body to speak ballet’s arcane language.
Mr. Sar, known as Sy (rhymes with ‘we’), is now 25, and looking for another berth after leaving Seattle. But when he first caught Ms. Bass’s eye, he was performing with other students of the Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance at Preah Khan. In 2000 dance, like all the arts in Cambodia, was rebuilding after the chaos and destruction of the Khmer Rouge years. Back in the United States, Ms. Bass recalled: “I started thinking about Sy’s performance and the fact that he didn’t have a future there. And I couldn’t bear to think of that talent going to waste.”
So without giving it too much thought — “It was quite naïve” — Ms. Bass, one of the richest women in the United States thanks to her 1988 divorce from the Texas billionaire Sid Bass, offered to bring Mr. Sar to the United States to study ballet. Then on the board of the prestigious School of American Ballet, she had a plan: “I thought that I would announce to the school that I had found this really talented dancer, that he would move into the dorm, and occasionally I’d take him out for dinner or something.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. The elegant curlicues and stylized movements of Cambodian dance are difficult to learn but, Mr. Sar found, not particularly germane to ballet.
“Cambodian dance is very slow and low to the ground,” Mr. Sar said in a telephone interview. “There are no turns and very little jumping. It is not as demanding as Western ballet.”
He’d had no idea “this ballet thing,” as he calls it in the movie, would take so long to learn or be so hard on his body. “I was already a performer in Cambodia,” Mr. Sar said. “Here I was almost less than a 10-year-old boy.”
He was not immediately accepted at the school, so Ms. Bass hired Ms. Kostritzky to coach him. And she bought a video camera to record his progress.
“It was just to give his mother on the other side of the world an idea of what he was doing,” she said. “I never thought I was making a movie. If I had,” she added with a laugh, “I assure you, it would have been a lot better.”
Those home videos revealed Mr. Sar’s increasing prowess. In 2006 he made it to the Varna semifinals, and afterward Ms. Bass invited some friends — “two New York City Ballet dancers, some writers, artists and art critics and a few friends who had a connection with Sy” — to dinner in Connecticut to show them some clips she’d received of the Varna competition.
She enlisted a film student to label the various ballets and edit them into a DVD.
“Once I saw how easy it was, I said: ‘Listen, I’ve also got television footage from his performance in Phnom Penh.’ Then there was the classroom footage, and I had photographs. And he just put together this little film that I showed my friends.”
Her friends were impressed, and they urged her to turn the story into a feature-length documentary. When she did a reality check with dance-world friends, they concurred. Ms. Bass signed the Emmy-winning documentary maker Catherine Tatge to direct.
“As we were working,” Ms. Tatge said by phone, “it became clear than Anne had really been living and breathing this story, had spent a long time nurturing Sy.” Ms. Tatge stepped into a more advisory role as co-producer, and Ms. Bass took over as director.
Three years and $700,000 later, Ms. Bass said, “I surprised myself with how much I was engaged by the process.”
She was especially taken with the job of editing: “There were so many different ways the story could have gone. There were stories within stories.”
Some of the stories she left out are about her. There’s no mention of the dispute that led her to resign from the School of American Ballet board in 2005, or evidence of the bond she now shares with Mr. Sar. (“She’s like my American mother,” he said.)
“I would happily have not been in the movie at all,” she said. “It’s very hard to look at yourself. I just ended up trusting my editors. Where they really felt they needed me, that’s where I ended up.”
The film also ignores Ms. Bass’s charity work in Cambodia. “Anything you do there makes a difference,” she said. “Anything.”
And now when she visits a fledgling dance school she’s become interested in, she takes her video camera. “If I make a film of them someday,” she explained, “I want to have something from the very beginning.”