by Julia Tong
When filmmaker Jennifer Lin found publicity photos of the seminal 1954 production of The Nutcracker, she was stunned: The dancer in the “Chinese Tea” section of the ballet was actually Asian. Reviews mentioned that the dancer, George Lee, had phenomenal abilities that others could not replicate. Yet he remained relatively unknown in ballet history.
Lee’s story is now captured in Lin’s most recent film, Ten Times Better, which premiered at Lincoln Center on February 10th. The 30-minute documentary chronicles his work as a pioneering dancer– as well as his colorful life, which spanned continents and cultures.
“What makes George [Lee]’s story so compelling is not only what he did on the stage, but his whole journey to get here,” says Lin. “His odyssey to get here to me was remarkable.”
“You, as a dancer– you better be ten times better!”
When Lee quietly retired from ballet in 1980, he disappeared from public view. Today, he works as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas.
Still, Lin was determined to find the dancer and learn the story of one of the few Asian American dancers in that era.
“I tried to track down his career because I’m interested in the history of Asian American performers,” said Lin. “I couldn’t find anything. So I became obsessed with finding George Lee and asking him what happened.”
It took a month, and the help of dancer Phil Chan and an archivist, for Lin to track him down. In December 2022, Lin left him a long voicemail expressing interest in his dance career.
Lee, however, did not believe that someone would wish to learn about his career. It took Lin’s urging for him to agree to the documentary.
“I was shocked because I never thought anybody will look it up, about me dancing in the past,” said Lee.
“Nobody cared about me or knew me,” he added. “And Jennifer kept saying, ‘I want to see your story.’”
Lee was born in 1935. His Polish mother was a renowned dancer and trained young George in the strict and technical Russian school of ballet. His Chinese father, an acrobat, was separated from the family during World War II and killed before Lee could know him.
During the Chinese Civil War, Lee’s mom, fearful that the Communists would separate George from her, fled to the Philippines. There, they lived in a refugee camp for 2 years. Lee’s mother tried to bring George to Australia. Due to anti-Chinese immigration laws, however, the two ultimately moved to the US instead.
But the move to the US made him sharply aware of his Asian identity. Lee had always been closer to his mother’s Polish heritage than Chinese culture — for instance, he spoke Russian and Polish with her at home. His mother, he recalls, warned him before he plunged into the all-white world of elite ballet.
“When I come to the United States from the refugee camp, she say, ‘You are going to America, its all white and you are Asian. And you as a dancer– you better be ten times better!” Lee recalls. “And that’s sticking in my head.”
Lee took his mother’s words to heart. At the School of American Ballet, he quickly proved himself– his first ballet class after 2 years without practice in the refugee camp, he recalls, was a snap “snap.” Lee later caught the attention of André Eglevsky, the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, who tutored him and brought him on tour.
But, as an Asian dancer, Lee also had to contend with tokenism. In 1954, famed choreographer George Balanchine selected him for the Nutcracker’s “Chinese Tea” dance– because he was the only Asian dancer available. Promotional images for the production showed him dressed in a mustache, long beard, and braid, wearing a rice hat.
Still, his dancing ability caught the eye of the crowd— such as leaps where he launched upwards, turning twice in the air before landing in a crouch on the ground. He later distinguished on Broadway as well, dancing in the premiere of Flower Drum Song, a musical by the landmark Broadway duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
“Not only was George in the premiere of The Nutcracker, but he was in the original cast of Flower Drum Song, which is a seminal play for Asian American performers,” says Lin. “It was the first time someone of the stature of Rodgers and Hammerstein cast their gaze on the Asian American immigrant experience.”
“People have to know who were the pioneers in dance.”
Per Lin, Lee’s impact on Asian American dance history is significant. As the first Asian American to dance for the prestigious New York City ballet, he paved the way for other Asian dancers and distinguished himself as a standout dancer.
These are true even if Lee doesn’t recognize the importance of his career, she stresses.
“And I had to tell him, George, your story is worth telling,” says Lin. People have to know who were the pioneers in dance.”
As such, Lin felt an urgency to share Lee’s story. Ten Times Better was made unusually quickly, in only a year. She ultimately hopes that the film doesn’t only capture Lee’s successful ballet career– but also the lessons of his life story that extend far beyond dance.
“And a story that goes beyond just ballet. It’s a story about perseverance and resilience, and trying to always be 10 times better.”
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