Lee Lee Lan, celebrated Malaysian dancer and choreographer, dies aged 77


A file image of Malaysian ballet pioneer Lee Lee Lan at the Federal Academy of Ballet in Petaling Jaya in 2009. Photo: The Star/Filepic

Malaysian dancer, ballet advocate and choreographer Lee Lee Lan, considered one of the beloved arts pioneers in the local dance scene, died yesterday (May 16) at the age of 77, according to her son Larry Lee, a spokesperson for the Federal Academy of Ballet.

Born in Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur, Lee Lee Lan (real name Tan Lee Lan) began dancing actively in the late 1950s when her two older sisters introduced her to ballet.

Her journey in the dance scene in the 1960s wasn’t an easy one as she faced several obstacles and challenges in training and learning ballet in Malaysia.

In the early 1960s, she took ballet lessons at a school in Batu Road (now Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in KL) under dance teachers Soonee Goh and Blossom Shek. She later trained under British ballet teacher Ethel Foxcroft.

One of Lee’s early career anecdotes, which she used to often share, was how her family moved from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka in the early 1960s, and she was cut off from her ballet classes in the capital.

Hers had been a teenage dancer’s story of sacrifice and single-minded determination, traits which would later make Lee a giant in the local and international dance community.

As a Form Two student in ballet-less Melaka, Lee recalled she had to find a way to continue her ballet apprenticeship.

Lee's journey in the dance scene in the 1960s wasn’t an easy one as she faced several obstacles and challenges in training and learning ballet in Malaysia. Photo: Federal Academy of BalletLee's journey in the dance scene in the 1960s wasn’t an easy one as she faced several obstacles and challenges in training and learning ballet in Malaysia. Photo: Federal Academy of Ballet

“With no other option in sight, I had to tell my ballet teacher, Mrs Foxcroft, that I could not continue learning ballet. The answer I received from Mrs Foxcroft was not what I expected. After I said that I could not afford the hefty fare of travelling to and from Kuala Lumpur every weekend for lessons, Mrs Foxcroft offered free lessons,” Lee was quoted as saying in an interview with The Star in June, 2009.

Lee’s weekends were spent at Foxcroft’s ballet classes and commuting between Melaka and Kuala Lumpur.

From here on, Lee’s commitment and resilience landed her a place in Universiti Malaya in KL, where she completed a Bachelor in Economics, while also teaching ballet part-time to support herself and immersing herself in the theatre scene.

Her first choreographic works were seen in musicals - West Side Story, Flower Drum Song and Show Boat - produced while studying at the Universiti Malaya in the 1960s.

“In those days, it was not easy to get into the university, so when I graduated, many people asked when I would start on a “proper” job. My answer was simple: teaching ballet was a proper job,” she added in the 2009 interview.

In 1967, her dance career evolved when she founded the Federal Academy of Ballet, which had its humble beginnings in a small house in Sec 6 in Petaling Jaya.

Through the years, Lee lifted talented dancers from around the country and set them on a course to amazing careers. She taught many famous dancers and choreographers in Malaysia, including Joseph Gonzales (a renowned Malaysian choreographer and dance academic).

Lee's big dream was to elevate the ballet art form in Malaysia with the Federal Academy of Ballet, which started out in a small house in Petaling Jaya in 1967. Photo: Federal Academy of BalletLee's big dream was to elevate the ballet art form in Malaysia with the Federal Academy of Ballet, which started out in a small house in Petaling Jaya in 1967. Photo: Federal Academy of Ballet

“I have taught people from all walks of life - from taxi drivers to koay teow sellers, and some of them have opened their own ballet schools,” continued Lee, who always encouraged boys to pick up ballet.

“Some people think that boys taking up ballet are sissy, but I honestly think it is much harder than playing football."

As a dancer, Lee also absorbed the contemporary trends of the day, which later served her well in her illustrious career as a choreographer and dance teacher. Her work for RTM in the 1970s also saw her adding a progressive-minded outlook to dance programmes on Malaysian television, including the Antara Empat Kaum series, which nurtured cultural diversity.

The early 1970s ushered in a prolific period in Lee’s career. As an arts entrepreneur and teacher, she steadily turned the Federal Academy of Ballet into an important dance space in Malaysia, while the arts and culture agencies here engaged her expertise when it came to contemporary dance, after her shows such as Wind and See Not, Hear Not, Speak Not.

Lee was also learning about the stage as her career progressed. She worked under Irish-British choreographer Dame Ninnette De Valois (founder of the Royal Ballet) in London where she danced in Checkmate, and after a stint at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, Lee was inspired to embark on even more ambitious choreography, which culminated in a three-act ballet entitled Soraya. This show, which merged Malay traditional dance and classical ballet was first staged in 1981.

In 1999, she choreographed Dance Classique, one of the major productions to launch the national arts venue Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur.

At the heart of things, Lee, who loved teaching dance and had a passion for history, not only helped expose the general public to ballet in Malaysia, but also turned the Federal Academy of Ballet into a highly-respected dance institution, which has produced several generations of dancers and choreographers.

The Malaysian arts scene and Lee's former students took to social media to mourn her death, with many thanking her for her work.

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