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Goh Soo Khim

Co-founder of Singapore's first professional dance company

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Art often acts like a window to the world and opens our minds to experience and accept differences in other people.

Her World, 2008

Goh Soo Khim, born in 1944, is one of the most respected figures in the Singapore ballet scene. The sister of Singapore ballet icons Goh Soo Nee, Goh Choo Chiat and the late Goh Choo San, Soo Khim took over the reins of the Singapore Ballet Academy in 1971 and co-founded Singapore’s first professional dance company, the Singapore Dance Theatre with the late Anthony Then in 1988. Since then, the 1981 Cultural Medallion winner has nurtured generations of successful ballet dancers, soloists and choreographers and provided them with invaluable opportunities for training and performance. She has also brought to growing local and international audiences numerous classic and contemporary works, many with Asian narratives and motifs.

Goh Soo Khim was born in 1944 in Singapore to a family with nine children, three of whom would become internationally respected ballet dancers, choreographers and teachers—her eldest brother Goh Choo Chiat, elder sister Goh Soo Nee and younger brother Goh Choo San.

She had always loved dancing from a very young age and trained in ballet at the Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA) in the 1950s and early ’60s under the tutelage of her sister Soo Nee, Vernon Martinus and Frances Poh. In 1964, Goh pursued further training in Australia and became the first Asian to be admitted to the prestigious Australia Ballet School, returning to Singapore in 1966 to perform Giselle with her brother and SBA’s then resident choreographer, Choo San, to acclaim. While still in Australia in 1969, she married her childhood sweetheart Daniel Teo whom she had known since her first year in Nanyang Primary School. Upon their subsequent return to Singapore, Goh joined her sister Soo Nee at SBA to be its principal trainer and principal dancer.

Soon after, Soo Nee left Singapore to pursue new opportunities in Canada, and Goh took over as the SBA’s director and principal in 1971. Although a talented dancer herself, she shunned a professional stage career and focused instead on grooming young dancers. She led her students to perform at many Singapore Arts Festivals and dance festivals over the years including the 1977 2nd ASEAN Radio and Television Cultural Exchange Programme where she represented Singapore. She also began creating original work, including her maiden choreographic work, Temple Tone Poem (1978), Goodbye Again (1980), and Dilemma (1982) and Five Emotions (1982), two works commissioned for and premiered at the 1982 Singapore Arts Festival. All were contemporary works that demonstrated her ability to marry Western ballet technique with relevant and contemporary Asian narratives, themes and aesthetic elements.

Another turning point in Goh’s career came in 1984 when she was appointed as co-artistic director of the Ballet Group of the National Dance Company by the Ministry of Culture. Goh created and staged Environmental Phases, which was performed by the Ballet Group at the 5th ASEAN Festival of Performing Arts, and also collaborated twice with dancer-choreographer Anthony Then to produce At the Ballet and Ballet Premiere for the Singapore Arts Festival. Then and Goh—who had since the 1960s been struck by the lack of performing opportunities for aspiring ballet dancers in Singapore—began to work towards establishing a professional dance company.

Their efforts were realised in 1988 when they co-founded the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), Singapore’s first professional dance company dedicated to providing a performance platform for professional ballet dancers. SDT began its life with seven dancers—three selected from the Ballet Group of the National Dance Company and four from the Southeast Asian region—and without its own premises, using the SBA’s studios. There, Goh and Then developed a repertoire of classic and contemporary works including those created and choreographed by the founders themselves.

SDT moved into its own permanent premises at Fort Canning in 1991 and in 1995, SBA became associated with SDT. By then, several SBA alumni had joined SDT as key founding members and professional dancers, and many SBA dance students performed in SDT’s full-length productions. In 1995, SDT launched Ballet Under the Stars, an annual outdoor dance performance at Fort Canning Park. Unfortunately, that same year, Then passed away in December, leaving Soo Khim to helm SDT. Thirteen years later after many successes, Soo Khim stepped down as artistic director of SDT in Dec 2008, and Janek Schergen—her brother Choo San’s longtime ballet master—replaced her.

For her outstanding achievements and contributions to the development of ballet in Singapore, Goh received the Cultural Medallion in 1981, the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) in 1989, and a Fellowship from the LASALLE College of the Arts in 2002. She has also been honoured with invitations to sit on dance jury panels. These include the international panel for the Asia Pacific Ballet Competition in Japan, which she has been part of since 1991, and the jury for the prestigious 2003 Benois de la Danse Prix in Moscow for which she became the first Asian representative. She was also Her World magazine's Woman of the Year 2008 and in 2009, she became an international jury member for the Genée International Ballet Competition in Singapore. That same year, she was conferred a fellowship from the Royal Academy of Dance in London.

During her 20 years as artistic director of SDT, the company established itself to become one of Asia’s leading dance companies, with 22 dancers of various nationalities performing a repertoire of classical and contemporary works over six seasons in a year and touring Asia as well as Australia and other countries including France, UK, USA and Mexico. Through the years, SDT managed to develop not only a growing pool of ballet talent in Singapore, but also a growing audience.

At present, Goh sits on the board of directors of the SDT. She also remains the director and principal of the SBA, continuing to inspire and mentor younger generations of dancers. The soft-spoken grand dame of ballet currently enjoys spending time with her family, especially her six grandchildren.

Timeline

1944

Born in Singapore.

1956

Trained at the Malaya School of Ballet.

1958 to 1963

Trained at the Singapore Ballet Academy and obtained an Advanced Certificate from the Royal Academy of Dance.

1964 to 1966

Enrolled in the Australian Ballet School as its first Asian student.

1966

Debut performance as Giselle with brother Goh Choo San at the Victoria Theatre.

1967 to 1970

Teaching staff, Singapore Ballet Academy.

1971 to Present

Director and principal, Singapore Ballet Academy.

1971 to Present

Director and principal, Singapore Ballet Academy.

1977

Represented Singapore in the 2nd ASEAN Radio and Television Cultural Exchange Programme.

1978

Choreographed Temple Tone Poem..

1980

Choreographed Goodbye Again..

1981

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to dance.

1982

Choreographed Dilemma and Five Emotions. Both premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival.

1984

Co-artistic director, Ballet Group, National Dance Company.

Co-founder, National Ballet Group.

Co-producer, At the Ballet and Ballet Premiere, Singapore Arts Festival.

1985

Original choreography – Environmental Phases

Environmental Phases performed at the 5th ASEAN Festival of Performing Arts.

1988

Co-founder, Singapore Dance Theatre.

1988 to 2008

Artistic director, Singapore Dance Theatre.

1989

Received Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal).

1991 to Present

Member, International Panel, Asia Pacific Ballet Competition, Japan.

1992

Led the Singapore Dance Theatre to produce its first full-length ballet The Nutcracker by Anthony Then at the Kallang Theatre.

1995

Launched Ballet Under the Stars, an outdoor ballet programme by Singapore Dance Theatre.

Merger of Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Ballet Academy.

2002

Conferred Fellowship, LASALLE College of the Arts.

2003

International jury member, Benois de la Danse Prix, Moscow.

Dec 2008

Retired as artistic director of Singapore Dance Theatre.

2009

Received Woman of the Year award, Her World magazine.

International jury member, Genée International Ballet Competition, Singapore.

Conferred fellowship, Royal Academy of Dance.

2010 to 2012

International jury member, 13-15th Solo Ballet Competition, Dance Society of Malaysia.


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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