Goh Lay Kuan



Goh Lay Kuan (b. 1939, Sumatra, Indonesia–) is a pioneer dancer, choreographer and dance teacher. She has nurtured generations of young artists, and is an advocate of arts education for the young and the physically handicapped. She co-founded the Singapore Performance Arts School (SPAS) with her husband, the late Singapore theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun. Goh served as the school’s principal, dance teacher and choreographer, overseeing its evolution into The Theatre Practice (TPE).1 For her contributions to the dance scene in Singapore, Goh was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Dance in 1995.2

Early life and career
Goh was born in Sumatra, Indonesia. When she was barely five weeks old, her family moved to Malaya where they settled down in Sungei Petani, Kedah.3


In 1941, her parents moved to Malacca due to the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Subsequently, Goh’s father was killed by the Japanese as he was part of a group of resistance fighters. She was only five years old then.4

Goh’s mother remarried a school teacher and the family moved to Singapore. As her mother was a teacher in the Hokkien Huay Kuan schools, Goh attended Chong Fu Primary School and later Nan Chiau Girls’ High School (now known as Nan Chiau High School).5

Goh was a ‘tomboy’ in her family of four boys and two girls. She spent her playtime climbing trees and turning somersaults in the fields – activities that she felt helped in her ballet training in later years.6

Music, songs, dance and the arts were a part of Goh’s home life. Her stepfather painted, while her mother taught her to play the piano. Without any formal training, her sister sang and played the piano while her brothers played the guitar and various other instruments. The siblings created their own songs and drama for entertainment.7

As a student in Nan Chiau Girls’ High School, Goh was very active in sports, painting, and other cultural activities. Through some of these activities, she got to know Goh Soo Khim, the late Goh Choo San and their family of dancers. This friendship roused her interest in ballet.8

Against the wishes of her parents, Goh took up ballet lessons at the Singapore Ballet Academy. She was already 17 then and was considered as a very late starter.9 However, she was a quick learner and diligent student.10 She trained initially under Goh Soo Nee, Veron Martines and Frances Poh.11

In 1959, at the age of 19, Goh had saved enough money to leave for Australia to study ballet at the Victoria Ballet Guild in Melbourne where she studied intensively under Laura Martin.12

The feisty young Goh took classes six hours a day with girls half her age. By sheer hard work, Goh graduated with honours from Victoria Ballet Guild in three years. She danced with various dance companies and became principal dancer with Ballet Victoria.13

An incident during her student days that was etched deeply in Goh’s memory was when the dance school refused to let her take lessons with famed Russian ballet teacher, Peter Gusev. Goh marched into his class and asked him personally for a lesson. Not only did she get two weeks of lessons, she also clinched a scholarship to study ballet at the St Petersburg Ballet. This event caused an uproar in the Australian ballet community as it was unheard of to award the scholarship to a non-Australian. Eventually, Goh had to give up the scholarship as Singapore had no diplomatic relations with Russia at that time. This was a source of lifelong regret for Goh.14

During her time in Australia, she met her future husband Kuo Pao Kun. In 1965, they decided to return to Singapore. Goh felt that it was difficult to achieve much in Australia as Asians. The couple thought that Singapore’s multicultural society would provide the perfect melting pot for the creation of a new artistic identity. Goh also thought that with the starting of television in Singapore and the National Theatre, there would be work opportunities for her.15

However, reality was harsher than she imagined. The performing arts scene in Singapore was almost non-existent. So, in 1965, she and Kuo founded the Singapore Performing Arts School (SPAS).16 The school started with Goh giving dance classes. Her dream was to build up a pool of professionals and in time, form a dance company.17 In the same year, Goh and Kuo were married.18

In 1973, after the birth of their two daughters, the couple renamed the school Practice Theatre School (PTS). In 1976, Goh and Kuo were both arrested under the Internal Security Act and detained without trial for alleged communist association due to the contents of some of their works. The press labelled Goh as the “Red Ballerina”. She was released a few months later after she recanted but Kuo was detained for four-and-a-half years.19

After Kuo was released from detention in 1980, the school experienced a burst of activities. In 1984, the school was renamed as Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS).20 Goh began to choreograph and stage more dance works.21 The school is now known as The Theatre Practice (TPE).22

Artistic career
Upon her graduation from the Victoria Ballet Guild, Goh danced with various dance companies in Australia. Her ballet career in Australia was a short but brilliant one. In less than five years, she had become principal dancer of the Victoria Ballet Group in Melbourne. This was no easy feat for an Asian in a predominantly-white dance company. She took part in 14 major performances in which she danced solo, including Swan Lake, The Nutcracker Suite, and The King and I.23


Upon her return to Singapore in 1965, she co-founded SPAS with her husband Kuo with the aim of raising up a pool of trained dancers and artists. The school started off by offering dance classes taught by Goh in English and Chinese.24

Goh was initially not interested in choreography. However, because she believed that it was important for every dance student to go on stage to perform, she decided to choreograph dances for her students. In 1965, she choreographed her first work, a ballet piece with strong Malay influences.25

During her husband Kuo’s detention in the late 1970s, Goh’s time and energy was taken up caring for her two young daughters and running the school. With Kuo’s release in 1980, Goh’s time was freed up and she began to be more active in her creative pursuits.26

Goh’s career flourished in the 1980s and the 1990s.27 She took time off to recharge, and she choreographed, learned new dance forms, opened dance classes for children and introduced new dance programmes.28
 
In 1983, Goh went to New York to study under the legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. While Goh was in the United States, she was selected as one of 12 students to attend an elite choreographer master class.29

In 1988, Goh was commissioned to create a dance for the Singapore Festival of Arts. The result was Nu Wa (Mender of the Heavens), Singapore’s first full-length modern dance production based on Chinese mythology. It was described by The Straits Times as Singapore’s “most significant modern dance ever produced”.30

On the teaching front, in addition to planning and conducting existing children’s dance classes at PPAS, Goh created a new programme for preschoolers. This was her Play-In-Arts programme for children aged three to six years old, which was launched in 1988.31 Despite the hard work involved, Goh would still plan regular stage performances and choreograph dances for her young students.32

In 1992, Goh retired as artistic director of PPAS.33 This gave her more time to concentrate on her art.34

In 1994, she created another two highly acclaimed dances, Sheng Ji (Rites of Life) and Yu Gui (Homing), which were performed by the Guangdong Modern Dance Company at the Festival of Arts held that year.35

Presently, Goh is artistic advisor to TPE. 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.36

Stylistic conventions
Goh’s earliest works in the 1960s attempted to blend Chinese, Indian and Malay elements with ballet choreography.37 For example, her Little Red Flower and the Fishing Village (1969) was a blend of ballet with Malay cultural elements.38

In the 1980s, after her stint with Martha Graham, her works became more philosophical and showed a freedom from forms. She so successfully blended contemporary, East Asian and Southeast Asian dance forms and themes that, even if one may discern traces of ballet, and Indian, Malay and Chinese dances, her final form was none of those: it was, simply, a dance choreographed by Goh.39

Family
40
Husband:
Kuo Pao Kun (deceased).

Daughters: Kuo Jian Hong, Kuo Jing Hong.

Awards
41
1995:
Cultural Medallion for Dance.

List of selected works
42
1969:
Little Red Flower, The Fishing Village.
1988: Nu Wa (Mender of the Heavens).
1994: Sheng Ji (Rites of Life), Yu Guy (Homing).



Author
Chor Poh Chin


References
1.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
2.
National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Dance. Retrieved from https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/dance/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-dance
3. 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Ong, S. F. (2005, November 14). Dancing Queen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Ong, S. F. (2005, November 14). Dancing Queen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Her stubbornness keeps her going. (1995, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 2; Ong, S. F. (2005, November 14). Dancing Queen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Ong, S. F. (2005, November 14). Dancing Queen. The Straits Times, p. 4; Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Walker, P. (1982, June 13). Creativity comes with wider social contact. The Straits Times, p. 3 Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Walker, P. (1982, June 13). Creativity comes with wider social contact. The Straits Times, p. 3 Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
13. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR); Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
14. Ong, S. F. (2005, November 14). Dancing Queen. The Straits Times, p. 4; 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2; Ong, S. F. (2005, November 14). Dancing Queen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
17. Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
20. The Theatre Practice. Milestones. Retrieved from http://en.practice.org.sg/about/milestones/
21. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
22. The Theatre Practice. Milestones. Retrieved from http://en.practice.org.sg/about/milestones/
23. Walker, P. (1982, June 13). Creativity comes with wider social contact. The Straits Times, p. 3; Singapore girl has a part in ‘The King and I’. (1963, February 2). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
27. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
28. 黄向京 [Huang, X. J.]. (1995, August 9). 默默耕耘开垦脚尖下的空间 [Mo mo geng yun kai ken jiao jian xia de kong jian]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 88. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
29.丘文华 [Qiu, W. H.]. (1984, June 1). 西方舞蹈中心渐移到美国 [Xi fang wu dao zhong xin jian yi dao Mei Guo]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 52. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
30. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
31.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
32. Lau, F. K. (1995, December 2). It is no mean feat to keep 240 little feet in rhythm and step. The Straits Times, p. 18; 霍月伟 [Huo, Y. W.]. (1989, December 2). 让儿童享受一次难忘的剧场经验 [Rang er tong xiang shou yi ci nan wang de ju chang jing yan]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 47; 黄向京 [Huang, X. J.]. (1995, August 9). 默默耕耘开垦脚尖下的空间 [Mo mo geng yun kai ken jiao jian xia de kong jian]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 88. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. 黄向京 [Huang, X. J.]. (1995, August 9). 默默耕耘开垦脚尖下的空间 [Mo mo geng yun kai ken jiao jian xia de kong jian]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 88. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
35. Goh, with gusto. (1994, June 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
37. 李天锜 & 霍月伟 [Li, T. Q. & Huo, Y. W.]. (1995, September 1). 得奖不是句号 [De jiang bu shi ju hao]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Tribute.sg. (2012). Goh Lay Kuan. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Goh+Lay+Kuan
39. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR); 黄向京 [Huang, X. J.]. (1995, August 9). 默默耕耘开垦脚尖下的空间 [Mo mo geng yun kai ken jiao jian xia de kong jian]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 88; 霍月伟 [Huo, Y. W.]. (1990, July 3). 实践”25年现代原始舞者的对话大地的声音唵 [Shi Jian 25 nian xian dai yuan shi wu zhe de dui hua da di de sheng yin an]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Her stubbornness keeps her going. (1995, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Dance. Retrieved from https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/dance/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-dance
42. 周文龙 [Zhou, W. L.]. (2008, August 26). 吴丽娟: 我不想梦见郭宝崑 [Wu Li Juan wo bu xiang meng jian Guo Bao Kun]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 25 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts