SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: Singapore’s doyenne of dance is no prima donna. She is proof you don’t need flash and aggression to get ahead, just poise and a quiet determination, even in the face of tragedy
At 66, Goh Soo Khim has spent most of her life in the news—as a star ballerina, a ballet teacher, and the co-founder of Singapore Dance Theatre, from which she has announced her retirement as artistic director. Born the ninth of 10 children to a businessman father and a housewife mother, she seemed destined to be a dancer.
Her father had encouraged all his children to learn either music or dance, which resulted in four of the children eventually pursuing dance as a career. Soo Nee, 74, headed the dance department of the Vancouver Music Academy before her retirement five years ago, while Choo Chiat, 70, founded and runs the Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver. Youngest sibling Choo San, arguably Singapore’s most famous dance export, was resident choreographer for the prestigious Washington Ballet before he died from illness in 1987 at the age of 39.
Soo Khim started taking lessons from the age of five, and was a regular fixture in school concerts at Nanyang Primary and Secondary Schools. In 1971, after graduating from the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, she became the director and principal of the Singapore Ballet Academy. In 1984, she co-founded an amateur ballet group under the National Dance Company with her good friend Anthony Then. “We realised that several dancers could work professionally,” she says. “It was time to establish a professional company.”
And so SDT was born. “It was difficult to sustain financially, but we knew we just had to build it up slowly,” she says. With $50,000 seed money from the then-Ministry of Community Development (predecessor to the present day National Arts Council), they set up shop. To cut costs, Soo Khim would take on multiple roles as ballet master, costume designer, tailor, floor sweeper and coffee maker. The company started out by staging classical and contemporary works by regional choreographers. Within four years, in 1992, SDT staged its first full-length ballet The Nutcracker. It was a smash hit.
But in 1995, tragedy struck. After a struggle with illness, Anthony died at the age of 51. Soo Khim still tears up when she talks about his death, which she considers – alongside Choo San’s death – one of the darkest periods of her life. “I lost a dear colleague and confidante who was supposed to journey with me through this. I wondered if I had the strength to go on.” She kept her personal turmoil from her staff, soldiering on as artistic director alone.
Yet there were times over the years when she wanted to throw in the towel. But every time that happened, she would slip into the studio and watch her dancers rehearse. “I would see the joy on their faces and think, it’d be such a waste to give this up,” she says.
If there is one person Soo Khim owes a huge chunk of her success to, it is her husband, 66-year-old property developer Daniel Teo, whom she calls the “invisible hero” of her career. An arts enthusiast who owns the Wetterling Teo Gallery, he helped Soo Khim raise funds for SDT and has never missed a single season of the ballet company’s performances in the last 20 years. With all her achievements at work, it’s easy to forget that she’s also led a full family life, raising four children who are now in their 20s and 30s.
As SDT expanded, Soo Khim was able to concentrate on one of the most daunting challenges of all—widening SDT’s audience base. Apart from crafting a repertoire that ranged from classical ballet to contemporary pieces to cater to different tastes, she also spearheaded effective outreach programmes. This included, since 1995, the popular Ballet Under The Stars series, which stages outdoor performances at Fort Canning Park. Her dogged evangelising of dance stems from a simple belief: Art helps you see beyond your own limited perspective of life. “Art acts like a window to the world and opens our minds to experience and accept differences in other people,” she says. HW
HER FAVOURITE THINGS
1. Bronze sculpture by Italian sculptor Anna Chiara Spellini
“The artist said she was interested in doing a sculpture of me and she based it on an old photograph taken in my 30s. This greets everyone entering my home. I think it’s very well done – it gives off a very tranquil feeling.”
2. Tree sculpture by Spanish sculptor Enric Pladevall
“We commissioned this work and it stands in one corner of my living room. It is a tall piece of wood at over 2m, and it’s partially wrapped in a layer of copper that is oxidised into varying shades of green. I like it because the texture is so interesting, and it brings a bit of nature into the house.”
3. Photo collection of tree bark
“I take close-up photos of tree barks as a hobby. It started a few years ago when I picked up qigong. I’d be outdoors and realise that tree trunks are so fascinating to look at. Each photo has so many textures and colours; it’s almost like a work of art. Nothing beats nature in offering true beauty. I have a few hundred photos all lying around the house.”
4. Vintage earrings
“This was my husband’s gift to me on my 20th birthday and I’ve kept it for 45 years. It’s not expensive, but it’s very precious to me. It has a lot of sentimental value.”
5. Balinese figurines
“I love these 1m-tall figurines I bought in Bali. I like their expressions—it’s like you can actually hear the music they’re playing.