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Ten Times Better: Prodigy, Refugee, Pioneer

Photo courtesy of the estate of Frederick Melton

"Compelling.
Heartwarming, impressive and important. A wonderful film."

 

David Henry Hwang, Tony-winning playwright
Press
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Our Story

The Story

 

George Lee is an 88-year-old blackjack dealer who still works five days a week. He’s a familiar and beloved figure in the pit of the Four Queens Casino in downtown Las Vegas.

 

But none of those card players knows his astonishing story or his place in ballet history. A child dance prodigy who grew up poor in Shanghai. A refugee fleeing war.

 

And as a teenager in New York, George was selected by George Balanchine to dance in his original staging of The Nutcracker exactly 70 years ago. Performing the “Tea” divertissement, he was a sensation.

 

It’s a uniquely American story: an immigrant striving to prove himself. An Asian pioneer in ballet and on Broadway. A dancer whose artistry was recognized by no less than Balanchine and Gene Kelly, who cast him in 

the original production of Flower Drum Song.

 

The film is a tale of talent and perseverance in the face of hardship, and a reminder of the extraordinary stories behind the nameless faces all around us.

Finding George

Jennifer Lin, director:

 

George Lee was hiding in the library for 70 years. 

 

I “discovered” him in the dance archives of the New York Public Library (NYPL). While researching Asians in ballet for another documentary, I came across photos of the 1954 premiere of George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker

 

There were photos of Maria Tallchief, and of Tanaquil Le Clercq—and some shots of Balanchine himself, choreographing a legendary ballet that is still danced around the world.

 

And then there was an image of a teenage Chinese dancer in the Tea divertissement. The photographer caught him at the top of a flawless split.

 

Who was this dancer? I became obsessed. In the ensuing weeks, I learned his name and age at that time (18), and heard the man who took over the role, Richard Thomas, tell a historian, “Balanchine choreographed a variation for him that none of us have ever been able to equal.”

 

So what happened to this dancer? After The Nutcracker, George Lee never danced again for the New York City Ballet.

After weeks of digging and false leads, I tracked him to Las Vegas, where he was still working as a blackjack dealer—at age 88! When we finally talked by phone, he said, “After all these years, I can’t believe anyone would be interested in me.”

As he recounted his life story, it became clear to me that many people would be interested in him. Thousands of people who’ve sat across from George Lee at the blackjack table never realized that this ordinary man holds an extraordinary place in dance history. 

 

With this film, we hope to bring George to center stage. 

Finding George Lee
Broadway dancers in Flower Drum Song musical

A scene from Flower Drum Song in 1958 (Photo by Friedman-Abeles ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Young George jumps in passé wearing tights and ballet clothes

Performing in New York City in the 1950s (Photo from George Lee personal collection)

George in Las Vegas, looking at marquee lights

George Lee outside the Four Queens Casino

George as a child in traditional Polish dance costume

A young George Lee performing in Shanghai
(Photo from George Lee personal collection)

Screenings
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Screenings & Events

Your Support

 

Please consider making a contribution so we can bring George’s story to audiences around the country.

You can make a tax deductible donation through our nonprofit fiscal agent, the Center for Independent Documentary.

And spread the word. Follow us on social media:

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Support
Ten Times Better film poster

Poster

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"This touching film brilliantly encapsulates the unbelievable story of a trailblazing Asian American artist in his struggle to be ‘Ten Times Better’ than his peers just to be seen."

— Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface

Crew

Creative Crew

Jennifer Lin, director/producer, spent more than 30 years as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her first documentary was Beethoven in Beijing, a feature about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s China legacy, which premiered nationally on PBS’s Great Performances.

 

Jon Funabiki, producer, advocates for media equity following a career spanning journalism, teaching and philanthropy. After covering Asia for The San Diego Union, Jon worked for The Ford Foundation and was a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University. 

Cory Stieg, producer, studied dance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Currently a content marketing manager for Codecademy,she has written extensively about dance for such publications as Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, and Pointe Magazine.  

Film crew following George in Las Vegas
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Connect

Connect

Contact Us:

Pentalina Productions LLC

Jennifer Lin

3655 Bristol Road

Doylestown, PA 18901

267-254-4451

tentimesbetterfilm@gmail.com

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"I’m overjoyed to be able to celebrate George’s legacy in this touching way, putting him front and center once again where he belongs."

— Georgina Pazcoguin, former soloist New York City Ballet & co-founder of
Final Bow for Yellowface

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