New film 'Ten Times Better' tells life story of New York City Ballet's first Asian dancer

CeFaan Kim Image
Saturday, February 10, 2024
New film tells life story of New York City Ballet's first Asian dancer
CeFaan Kim has the story.

For almost forty years working the casino floor has been George Lee's life. The 88-year-old blackjack dealer in Las Vegas is a beloved figure and still works five days a week.

But Lee had an entire life before Sin City as a dance trailblazer. Lee was the first Asian dancer for the New York City Ballet, and is the subject of a new documentary called "Ten Times Better".

"I walk into the class, I have twenty girls, no Asian, nobody. I look around and I get a little bit nervous," says Lee. "They look at me funny of course because an Asian guy comes to class, doing ballet. But they're shocked I can do things. You know what I mean?"

A pioneer, no one knew about until former journalist turned-filmmaker Jennifer Lin discovered he existed.

"George Balanchine premiered 'The Nutcracker' in 1951, and so I was looking through the publicity pictures and I saw this young Asian dancer doing the tea dance and I was like, 'wow this is interesting, they had an Asian dancer back then?'" says Lin. "But then I could find no trace of George after 'The Nutcracker' and so I became obsessed with finding him because I wanted to ask him, 'George what happened? Where did you go?'"

That was when Lee was 15 years old after he had just arrived in this country in 1951.

Born in Hong Kong, he spent two years in a refugee camp in the Philippines.

He fled to Shanghai where he worked as a dancer from the age of six, as a means of survival.

It prepared him for adversity in this country, turned down for roles because of his race.

"To get into Broadway shows was a lot of problems," says Lee. "And then they tell me well George you are good but you're typecast."

Lee went on to be cast by Gene Kelly in the original production of 'Flower Drum Song.'

Later while performing in Vegas he realized he couldn't dance forever, so he learned to deal.

"My mother warned me, you are going to America and it's all white people. You gotta be ten times better. Remember that, ten times better," says Lee.

"I think a lot of us have felt that. As a woman in the field of journalism I felt that deeply when I started out as a young person. I had to be ten times better to prove to everyone that I wasn't a token," says Lin.

"I did my best, my mother should be proud. What I did, I did the best I can," Lee says.


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