From Ballet to Blackjack, a Dance Pioneer’s Amazing Odyssey

Among the blaring lights and all-hours amusements of downtown Las Vegas, in a sea of slot machines at the Four Queens Hotel and Casino, George Lee sits quietly at a blackjack table, dealing cards eight hours a day, five days a week, a job he’s been doing for more than 40 years.

Lee, 88, was likely in his usual spot when the filmmaker Jennifer Lin was sifting through old photos at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2022, wondering what had become of a dancer with a notable place in ballet history. Pictured in a publicity shot for the original production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” in the role known as Tea, was a young Asian dancer identified as George Li.

For Lin, a veteran newspaper reporter turned documentarian, the picture raised intriguing questions. In 1954, when the photo was taken, it was rare to see dancers of color on the stage of New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine co-founded. Who was this young man, this breaker of racial barriers, this pioneer? Was he still alive? And if so, what was he up to?

“I became absolutely obsessed with trying to find out what happened to George Li,” Lin said in a video interview.

In just over a year, that obsession has blossomed into a short film, “Ten Times Better,” that chronicles the unexpected story of Lee’s life: from his childhood in 1940s Shanghai, where his performing career began; to a refugee camp in the Philippines, where he fled with his mother, a Polish ballet dancer, in 1949; to New York City and the School of American Ballet, where Balanchine cast him in “The Nutcracker”; to “Flower Drum Song” on Broadway, his first of many musical theater gigs; and ultimately, to Las Vegas, where he left dance for blackjack dealing in 1980. (He changed the spelling of his last name in 1959, when he became a United States citizen.)

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