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Goh Choo San

A legend of the local ballet scene

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Goh Choo San, born in 1948, is a Singapore ballet legend. Brother of ballet dancers Goh Soo Nee, Goh Choo Chiat and Goh Soo Khim, he first danced professionally with the Dutch National Ballet before finding fame as the resident choreographer and artistic director of the Washington Ballet in the USA. Hailed internationally for his unique choreography, he created highly successful works marked by their sensitive, elegant interpretations, musical precision, sculptural qualities, strong athleticism and incorporation of Asian elements. Since his untimely passing in 1987, his works have continued to be presented worldwide, included in the repertoire of many dance companies in the Americas and Europe, his legacy lovingly preserved by his longtime ballet master Janek Schergen and the Singapore Dance Theatre. He received the Cultural Medallion in 1986 for his contributions to dance.

Goh Choo San was born on 14 Sep 1948 in Singapore to merchant Goh Kim Lok and Siew Hang Ch’ng. He was brought up speaking Mandarin and with very traditional values. The youngest of nine children, Goh had three elder siblings who grew up to become professional ballet dancers—elder sister Soo Nee who trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and returned to co-found the Singapore Ballet Academy and later taught ballet in Vancouver, Canada; youngest sister Soo Khim who trained at the Australian Ballet and became co-founder and artistic director of Singapore Dance Theatre in 1988; and elder brother Choo Chiat who also trained at the Royal Ballet, became principal dancer at the Beijing Ballet and founded the Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver, Canada.

From 1955 to 1960, Goh attended Nanyang Primary School, and in 1958, at the age of 10, started learning ballet from sister Soo Nee at her Singapore Ballet Academy. From 1961 to 1964, he attended Chinese High School and from 1965 to 1966, he attended pre-university classes at Raffles Institution. By the time Goh had started choreographing for Singapore Ballet Academy in 1968, he had already set his mind on becoming a professional ballet dancer like his three elder siblings, but his father would only sanction that career choice if he completed his university education. So Goh enrolled in the University of Singapore and graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Biochemistry in 1969.

Having fulfilled his father’s wishes, Goh packed his bags and went to Europe in 1970 seeking a place in a ballet company. He found a position at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam and would remain with the company until 1976. He started as a dancer in the corps de ballet and rose to become a soloist in 1973. He performed works by George Balanchine as well as the company’s three resident choreographers: Toer van Schyk, Rudi van Dantzig, and Hans van Hanen. In 1973 and 1975, at the Dutch National Ballet Workshop, he created his first two ballets. They were small but successful efforts, and the Dutch Ministry of Culture awarded Goh a Creative Art Grant for choreography. Those first ballets also brought him to the attention of Mary Day, director of the Washington School of Ballet in Washington DC, USA. In 1976, he was offered a position at Mary Day’s newly established The Washington Ballet as company teacher and resident choreographer. He accepted and left Amsterdam for Washington DC, USA.

From that year until his death more than 10 years later in 1987, Goh was company teacher, resident choreographer, and subsequently in 1984, associate artistic director at The Washington Ballet. Within the first two years of working at The Washington Ballet, he had raised its profile to that of professional ballet company with his acclaimed ballets. They attracted the attention of important artistic directors of dance companies and built his reputation as an exciting, young ballet star.

The interest generated by these early works led to Goh being invited to be guest choreographer for many other dance companies in the following years. He received many commissions to create or stage his works from companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, The Australian Ballet, Bat Dor Dance Company, Boston Ballet, Ballet Nuevo Mundo De Caracas, Royal Danish Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Louisville Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Houston Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Ballet De Santiago, and Royal Swedish Ballet. Among his most famous commissioned works were Configurations, created in 1979 upon the request of the American Ballet Theater for Mikhail Baryshnikov and since presented in Europe and the USA; and his only full-length work, Romeo and Juliet, created in 1984 for the Boston Ballet in the USA.

While Goh staged for The Washington Ballet several of the more successful works that he had created as guest choreographer for these other companies, his principal role lay in creating work for The Washington Ballet. With The Washington Ballet, he created 14 original works that propelled himself and the company to international acclaim. Most of them were sophisticated and high-quality pieces such as Fives (1978), Birds of Paradise (1979), In The Glow Of The Night (1982) and Unknown Territory (1986). Incorporating Asian elements and set to sophisticated music selections, these were sensitive interpretations that were elegant, sculptural, and demanding of the performers musical precision, strength and athleticism.

Many of his works were filmed and broadcast in the USA and other countries, and performed repeatedly in Europe, South America and Asia. His unique choreography received great praise from peers and critics alike, inspiring descriptions such as this one from late South African theatre and ballet critic, Raeford Daniel:

“For Choo-San Goh’s choreography is brilliant—the imagery is achingly beautiful, the patterning so startlingly original that a new vocabulary would be required to describe them adequately, yet the whole so fluid and articulate that even a newcomer to ballet cannot fail to grasp its import. Goh’s work cannot be compared to that of anyone else, but one may get echoes of Balanchine in the breadth and sweep of his movement and in the incredible affinity he appears to have with music.”

His works won him tributes and awards including a 1978 choreography fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, USA; the 1983 choreography award in the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria for his work, Momentum, which thrust him into the international spotlight; and the 1986 Washington Mayor's award for Excellence in the Arts. Back in Singapore, a 35-minute documentary, The Art of Goh Choo San, was presented at the second Singapore Festival of Arts in 1983. Tracing his meteoric and successful career from an unknown young dancer to an internationally acclaimed and sought-after choreographer, the film established Singapore’s pride in his success and cemented his standing as a national legend.

In 1987, Goh received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to dance. He was also invited to be a celebrity judge at the Miss Universe Pageant held in Singapore, and became guest director for the Hong Kong Ballet for one of his works, Moments Remembered, for the Celebration of Hong Kong Artists festival that October in commemoration of City Hall's Silver Jubilee.

Barely a month later on 28 Nov 1987, Goh passed away in his home in New York City at 39 years of age from viral colitis. His passing stunned the dance community in Singapore and the USA. Just before his death, he had contributed a work for the debut performance of Singapore’s first professional ballet company, the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), newly founded by his youngest sister Soo Khim. Entitled Beginnings, this was performed by the SDT in 1988 at their opening with poignancy.

Before his death, Goh had also initiated the establishment of a foundation which would assist budding choreographers in the form of funding. In 1992, The Choo San Goh & H. Robert Magee Foundation was formed, with the establishment of the Choo San Goh Award for Choreography, which was given to deserving choreographers to help them further develop their talent.

To this day, Goh’s ballets continue to be performed all over the world. The staging and production his works is taken care of by his longtime ballet master, Janek Schergen, who is the current Artistic Director of SDT as well as the Artistic Director of the Choo-San Goh & H. Robert Magee Foundation which oversees the licensing and production of Goh's ballets. In 1997, SDT commissioned a monograph entitled Goh Choo San: Master Craftsman in Dance, containing a detailed overview of his life in written text and photos of his ballets. And in 2007, the company staged a retrospective of his works entitled Legacy. The SDT remains dedicated to preserving his legacy and sharing it with audiences with regular performances of his ballets.

Photo credit: National Arts Council

Timeline

14 Sep 1948

Born in Singapore.

1954 to 1959

Enrolled in Nanyang Primary School.

1959

Began dance traning at the Singapore Ballet Academy.

1960 to 1963

Enrolled in Chinese High.

1964

Enrolled in Raffles Institution.

1968 to 1969

Resident choreographer, Singapore Ballet Academy.

1969

Graduated from University of Singapore (BSc. in Biochemistry).

1970

Moved to Lausanne, Switzerland. Later moved to the Netherlands.

Dancer, Scapino Ballet, Amsterdam.

Dancer, Corps de ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Amsterdam.

1973

Created first choreography work for the Nel Roos Ballet School.

Received Creative Arts Grant, Dutch government.

Soloist, Dutch National Ballet, Amsterdam.

1975

Created choreography works Impressions Passed and Octet + Four for the Dutch Ballet Workshop.

Received Creative Arts Grant, Dutch government

1976 to 1987

Company teacher and resident choreographer, The Washington Ballet, Washington DC, USA.

1976

Created choreography work Introducing… for The Washington Ballet.

1977

Created choreography work Variations Serieuses for The Washington Ballet.

1978

Created choreography works Fives, Synonymns, and Double Contrasts for The Washington Ballet

Created choreography work For the 1st Time for the Gus Giordano Dance Company.

Received choreography fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, USA.

Performed original solo work Spectrum for Singapore Ballet Academy’s 20th anniversary concert in Singapore.

1979

Created choreography work Momentum for the Joffrey II Dancers.

Created choreography work Variations Concertantes for The Houston Ballet.

Created choreography work Casella 1, 3, 4 for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Created choreography work Birds of Paradise for The Washington Ballet.

1980

Created choreography works Lament and Casual Moments for The Washington Ballet.

Created choreography work Interventions for the Houston Ballet.

Created choreography work Celestial Images for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Created choreography work Leitmotiv for The Boston Ballet.

Created choreography work Helena for the Joffrey Ballet.

1981

Created choreography work Destined for The Washington Ballet.

Created choreography work Due Pezzi Sacri for The Boston Ballet.

Created choreography work Configurations for the American Ballet Theatre.

Created choreography work Spectrum for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

Configurations featured on a London Weekend Television programme.

1982

Created choreography work In the Glow of the Night for The Washington Ballet.

Created choreography work Liantos Perdidos for the New World Ballet of Caracas.

1983

Created choreography work Scenic Invitations for The Washington Ballet.

Created choreography work Beginnings for the Joffrey II Dancers.

Received choreography award at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria for Momentum.

The Art of Goh Choo San television documentary presented at the Singapore Festival of Arts.

1984

Created his only full-length choreography work Romeo and Juliet for the Boston Ballet.

1984 to 1987

Associate Artistic Director, Washington Ballet, Washington DC, USA.

1985

Created choreography work Schubert Symphony for The Washington Ballet.

Created choreography works Integral Dances and Moments Remembered for the Bat-Dor Dance Company.

Created choreography work Pastoral Moments for the Milwaukee Ballet.

1986

Received Washington Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Created choreography work Unknown Territory for The Washington Ballet.

Created choreography work Skiftende Billeder for the Royal Danish Ballet.

Created choreography work Ballade for the Goh Ballet Company.

1987

Received the Cultural Medallion for contribution to dance.

Mar 1987

Celebrity judge, Miss Universe Pageant, Singapore.

Sep 1987

Guest director, Moments Remembered for the Hong Kong Ballet.

28 Nov 1987

Passed away age 39 in New York City.

1988

Beginnings—a work specially created for the Singapore Dance Theatre—performed as Singapore Dance Theatre’s debut performance at the Singapore Festival of Arts.

1992

Establishment of the Choo San Goh & H. Robert Magee Foundation and the Choo San Goh Award for Choreography.

1997

Monograph Goh Choo San: Master Craftsman in Dance commissioned by Singapore Dance Theatre.

2007

Singapore Dance Theatre presented Legacy, a retrospective of Goh’s works.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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