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Goh Lay Kuan

Singapore dance pioneer and arts activist

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Goh Lay Kuan is a Singapore dance pioneer, arts activist, and the widow of the late theatre doyen, Kuo Pao Kun. With Kuo, she co-founded The Theatre Practice—which led the development of modern Singapore theatre—and headed its dance wing. As its principal, dance teacher and choreographer, the former principal ballerina with the Victoria Ballet Company created acclaimed modern dance works including Singapore’s first full-length modern dance production with 1988’s Nu Wa – Mender of the Heavens. She nurtured generations of young artists, while staunchly advocating and developing arts education for the young and the physically handicapped. She received the Cultural Medallion in 1995 and, in 2010, was feted in a stage docu-drama, Red Ballerina, by ex-student and celebrated Singapore theatre director Ong Keng Sen.

Goh Lay Kuan was born in 1939 in Sumatra, Indonesia. Her parents were Chinese-speaking teachers and, in the '40s, the family moved to Malaya where her father worked as a school principal, only to be evacuated to Malacca during the Japanese Occupation. Unfortunately, after the Japanese surrender in 1945, her father was murdered, a tragedy that would influence Goh’s belief in childhood arts education many years later.

As a 15-year-old, Goh had set her mind on becoming a dancer and started learning ballet against her mother’s wishes. She had her initial ballet training under Goh Soo Nee, the elder sister of Goh Choo San and Goh Soo Khim, in Singapore. Then, at the age of 19, funded by her own savings from a year of teaching—she worked as a kindergarten teacher in the morning, a relief teacher in the afternoon, and a tutor at night—she pursued further formal ballet training at the Victoria Ballet Guild in Melbourne, Australia. Three years later, she graduated with honours, and danced with various dance companies in Australia including Ballet Victoria where she became principal dancer.

Goh’s time in Australia exposed her to diverse art forms and she learnt much during those years. However, encounters with racial discrimination led her to decide in 1964 to return to Singapore. At that time, she was dating radio drama performer and writer, Kuo Pao Kun, whom she had met in the '50s as part of a Mandarin Drama Group at Singapore’s Rediffusion radio. He was then studying in a diploma programme from 1963 to 1965 at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, Australia.

In 1965, the couple returned to Singapore to find the contemporary performing arts scene to be almost non-existent. They had seen the need for a stronger sense of Singaporean cultural identity while they were in Australia, and now back in Singapore, saw that this was a pressing endeavour. So it came to be that on 1 July 1965, two most of the most important events in Goh’s life happened—Goh got married to Kuo Pao Kun, who by that time had become an impassioned theatre practitioner and arts activist, and on that same day, the couple founded the Singapore Performing Arts School.

The school, now known as the Practice Performing Arts School under The Theatre Practice, offered integrated dance, drama and music training and introduced children’s education programmes and performing arts education to Singapore. Goh was the school’s dance principal and teacher and training began in 1965 with the first ballet course taught by her. Because Singaporeans were not used to paying fees for drama classes which had until then been the domain of traditional cultural groups, the school was, for many years, largely supported by the dance wing.

Not long after the school’s founding, Goh gave birth to their first daughter Jian Hong in 1967, followed by their second daughter Jing Hong in 1971. In 1973, the Singapore Performing Arts School was renamed Practice Theatre School. By then, it had become renowned for its groundbreaking, thought-provoking and socially grounded contemporary Chinese plays written by Kuo as reflections of the common people’s lives and tools for social change.

Then came the massive leftist purge of 1976 in which many were arrested for supposed subversive activities. Goh was arrested and detained without trial, together with Kuo, under the Internal Security Act, for alleged troublemaking and association with communism, as some of their works about the period’s socio-political turmoil voiced a seemingly divergent ideological-political stance. In May 1976, Goh “confessed” her involvement in alleged underground communist activities on national television and was later released from prison while Kuo continued to be held in jail for four and a half years. During that time, stricken by financial difficulties, she showed tremendous fortitude as she cared for her two young daughters and ran the school alone, buoyed by reassuring letters from her husband and an indomitable sense of purpose.

With the release of Kuo in October 1980, the school experienced a burst of activity. Kuo resumed writing plays and staging productions, Goh too began choreographing and staging more dance works and, in 1984, the couple renamed The Practice Theatre School “the Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS)”.

Through the '80s and '90s, Goh flourished, further developing not only her dance education curriculum, but also her dance vocabulary, exploring other dance forms more deeply such as traditional Chinese dance, attending training stints in modern dance at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, USA, in 1983 and 1985 and collaborating in 1994 with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. While her earlier works such as 1969’s Little Red Flower, and The Rite of Life and The Homing Fish in the '80s had been successful creations that blended East-West and traditional-modern elements, her post-Martha Graham works were more philosophical works that brought together contemporary, East Asian and Southeast Asian dance forms, sensibilities and themes.

During this time, she made several trips to China to conduct research on Chinese myths for a new work commissioned for the 1988 Singapore Festival of Arts. The result was the Chinese mythology-based Nu Wa – Mender of the Heavens, Singapore’s first full-length modern dance production complete with large dance, orchestral and choral cast, described by The Straits Times as Singapore’s “most significant modern dance ever produced”.

Kuo and Goh additionally revitalised the company during this period, forming from the performing arts school a semi-professional, bilingual drama company they named the Practice Theatre Ensemble (PTE) in 1986, and officially registering PPAS as Practice Performing Arts Centre Ltd (PPACL), comprising PPAS and PTE in 1988. Several years later, in 1996, PPACL formed The Finger Players and, in 1997, PTE was renamed The Theatre Practice (TTP).

Amidst the company’s revitalisation, Goh introduced more programmes for children. Where before, her lessons had catered to older children, in 1988, she created a programme for preschoolers. This was her Play-In-Arts programme for children aged 3–6 years old, designed to enrich their corporeal engagement. Under PPACL, she also launched, in 1994, the Student Theatre Exposure Project (STEP). Her efforts resulted in her receiving the Cultural Medallion in 1995.

Then on 10 Sep 2002, Kuo passed away. Asked by the company’s board if she would replace her father in the company, the couple’s daughter Jian Hong returned from a film and theatre career in the USA and with theatre director Wu Xi became Co-Artistic Directors of TTP. In 2010, TTP and PPAS were consolidated under one name, The Theatre Practice Ltd (TTP). That same year, Goh, by then retired from active involvement in TTP, became the subject of a stage docu-drama Red Ballerina by ex-student and celebrated theatre director Ong Keng Sen. Featuring dramatised readings of letters exchanged between Goh and her husband, the production was a poignant work that gave a moving narrative of Lay Kuan’s life. In 2012 and 2013, Ong presented an update of the work with Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun, a portrait of the pioneering Singapore arts couple.

Presently, Goh is artistic advisor of The Theatre Practice. A few years ago, she developed programmes that integrate different art forms to offer a creative learning experience for intellectually disabled children through play. She continues to teach the Play-In-Arts programme that she designed for preschoolers.

Timeline

1939

Born in Sumatra, Indonesia.

1940

Moved to Malaya with her family.

1950

Met then radio drama writer and performer Kuo Pao Kun as part of a Mandarin Drama Group at Rediffusion radio.

1954

Started ballet training.

1959 to 1961

Trained in ballet at the Victoria Ballet Guild in Melbourne, Australia, and graduated with honours.

1961 to 1964

Joined Ballet Victoria and became principal dancer.

1964

Returned to Singapore.

1965

Taught her first ballet course.

1 Jul 1967

Married Kuo Pao Kun. Together, they founded Singapore Performing Arts School.

1967

Gave birth to first daughter Kuo Jian Hong.

1971

Gave birth to second daughter Kuo Jing Hong.

1973

Singapore Performing Arts School renamed Practice Theatre School.

1976

Arrested and detained without trial, together with Pao Kun, under the Internal Security Act, for alleged troublemaking and association with communism.

1979

Practice Theatre School renamed Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS).

1983

Trained in modern dance at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, USA. Went again in 1985.

1986

Founded Practice Theatre Ensemble (PTE), a semi-professional, bilingual drama company, with Kuo Pao Kun. Later renamed The Theatre Practice.

1988

Created, on commission for the 1988 Singapore Festival of Arts, Singapore’s first full-length modern dance production, Nu Wa – Mender of the Heavens.

PPAS was officially registered as Practice Performing Arts Centre Ltd (PPACL), comprising PPAS and PTE.

As part of the PTE education project, created the Play-in-arts programme.

1994

Collaborated with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company.

Under PPACL, launched the Student Theatre Exposure Project (STEP).

1995

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to dance.

1996

PPACL formed The Finger Players.

1997

PTE was renamed The Theatre Practice (TTP).

10 Sep 2002

Husband Kuo Pao Kun passed away.

2002

Daughter Kuo Jian Hong became Co-Artistic Director of TTP.

2010

TTP and PPAS consolidated under one name, The Theatre Practice Ltd (TTP).

Was the subject of the acclaimed stage docu-drama Red Ballerina by Ong Keng Sen.

Sep 2012 to Feb 2013

Together with Kuo Pao Kun, was subject of Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun, a stage portrait of the couple by Ong Keng Sen. Presented at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore.


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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