Remembering Our Days; SDT Dance Pioneers


Ms Goh Soo Khim is one of the co-founders of Singapore Dance Theatre, and remains to be a highly respected doyen in Singapore’s dance scene

“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” – Steve Jobs

Goh’s passion for dance was ingrained in her ever since she was a little girl, her joyous love for movement was undeniable and evident. She grew up with nine other siblings, of which three of them, Goh Choo Chiat, Goh Soo Nee, and Goh Choo San, became world-renowned dancers, choreographers, and teachers themselves.

Soo Khim learnt ballet at Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA) from Frances Poh, Vernon Martinus, and her elder sister, Soo Nee, whom she regards to have the greatest impact on her dance path. Although her father was not very keen on having yet another dancer in the family, Soo Khim’s opportunity to pursue professional dance training came in 1964 when the newly-opened Australian Ballet School (ABS) accepted her into their very first cohort. She was the only Asian student in a class of 20 students, of which one of her classmates was Ms Marilyn Rowe, the Director of ABS from 1999 to 2014.

Goh graduated in 1966, and returned to Singapore where she performed Giselle with her younger brother, Choo San, who was the resident choreographer at SBA then. It is one of her most cherished and fondest memories of her late brother who passed away in 1987.

In 1969, Soo Khim returned to Australia and married Daniel Teo, her childhood sweetheart from Nanyang Primary School. Soon after, Soo Nee decided to migrate to Canada, and Soo Khim took over SBA as the director and principal in 1971. More than her passion to dance, her passion to teach and raise a generation of dancers in Singapore burned even brighter.

In 1984, Goh and Anthony Then were invited by the then Ministry of Culture to be co-artistic directors of the Ballet Group of the National Dance Company. That was the beginning of their work partnership as artistic directors. It was in that Ballet Group that they noticed a handful of individuals who had immense potential and were ready to commit to a career in dance. Goh and Then shared a similar vision and zealousness for the Singapore dance scene, which steered them towards a single mission of building the first professional dance company in Singapore, which we now know as “Singapore Dance Theatre”.

SDT was officially announced in 1987 and opened in January 1988 with three of her students from SBA –  Chantal Pestana, Elizabeth Thng, and Jamaludin Jalil, as well as Ellie Lai from Malaysia, and Mario Esperanza, Donata Ferrer, and Ricardo Culalic from the Philippines. These seven dancers are the founding members of the company. Goh and Then gave all that they had into building a world-class company that could be versatile in both classical and contemporary works. It is because of their tenacity to create a platform for professional dancers that caused the history of dance in Singapore to be changed forever.

Since 1988, Soo Khim was at the forefront of Singapore Dance Theatre’s (SDT) pioneering and maturing years. Despite the many setbacks and challenges she had to battle, her deep desire of seeing SDT successfully established in Singapore was her motivation to press on as the artistic director of SDT, while continuing as the Principal of SBA. For three years, SDT shared SBA’s premise on Lloyd Road, before moving to its own studio at Fort Canning in 1991.

In 1992, the company performed its very first full-length classical ballet, The Nutcracker, which was restaged in 1994. Choreographed and staged by co-founder Anthony Then, the ballet featured a large cast of more than 100 dancers. In 1995, Mr Anthony Then passed away on the evening of the opening performance of Coppélia. It shook the company into a state of grief, but the performances had to go on. That was one of the most difficult periods of Soo Khim’s life, as she soldiered on as the sole artistic director of SDT.

One of Goh’s greatest fulfilment as the artistic director of SDT is being able to bring back most of her younger brother Choo-San’s works to Singapore’s stage, including intimate works like Beginnings, and spectacular choreographies like Momentum and Birds of Paradise. Beginnings was especially momentous as it was gifted to SDT from Choo-San for its debut performance at Victoria Theatre in 1988, and it was performed to much acclaim. Soo Khim also choreographed Brahms’ Sentiments for SDT’s first production, and in 1990, she choreographed Environmental Phases and co-choreographed Motif with Anthony.

Other than Choo-San’s works, Ms Goh also took pride in seeing the value of introducing many internationally renowned choreographers, including those from Asian countries, to collaborate with SDT. To her, it was important for dancers to be exposed to and learn from a variety of dance styles.

Together with the then company manager, Ms Ng Siew Eng, they put SDT on many international stages. The company toured extensively to cities worldwide including Australia, China, London, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, and the U.S.A. It grew as a new company in the region and internationally; garnering much interest and attention within a short span of time. The first 20 years of SDT were the years of exponential growth and maturity as Goh led the way forwards, venturing upon unchartered waters.

In view of the development of the company, Goh also stressed the importance of encouraging and providing a platform for dancers to nurture and discover their creativity and talent in choreography. This has led to many dancers establishing themselves as choreographers today.

Goh was awarded a Fellowship from the LASALLE College of the Arts in 2002, and she has also been honoured with invitations to sit on various dance jury panels, including the international panel for the Asia Pacific Ballet Competition in Japan since 1991, as well as the the Genée International Ballet Competition in Singapore. A notable invitation was when she was the first Asian to be asked to sit as one of the jury members for the prestigious Benois de la Danse Prix in Moscow in 2003.

Goh deeply believes in the value of staying open minded and hearted to other art forms beyond your own. Every artist is inspired by another, and one has to learn and grow as dancers by widening our perspectives of the arts. A painting can inspire movement in a dancer, just like how a dancer can prompt creation of musical scores. Hard work is not enough to refine an artist. It is through greater exposure and experiences that you begin to develop your own sensibilities as a dancer, and grow a deeper understanding of your craft.

It is possible that it is because of Soo Khim’s openness to diversity and opportunities that SDT has come to be known as a company of versatility and adaptiveness. It is a company where the dancers are brought in from many different parts of the world, and yet cohesive as a whole when they perform on stage. Daring to be different, and to go beyond the norms, Goh’s willingness to take up the challenge of pushing the boundaries has put the company out there and propelled SDT to launch forwards.

As Ms Goh would neatly put it, SDT is no longer ‘little’, and neither has it simply remained as a ‘dream’, instead SDT is now a beautiful reality. In a TV interview she did in the 1970s, she told the interviewer, “I would really love to see a professional dance company in Singapore”. But never would she have known that 10 years on, she would be the one who pioneers the dance company in Singapore; never would she have dared to dream that the company would be as big as it is now.

It is evident to everyone, especially the company members of Goh’s leadership, that Goh is a gentle woman of much persistence and passion for the dancers of SDT. In the words of Ms Goh, the company was “a close-knit group and everyone who worked in SDT has become a member of my extended family.” She was not only a mentor in the studio, but a motherly figure fondly remembered by many dancers.

After 20 years of service to SDT, Goh decided to retire as the artistic director of SDT in 2008. She felt that the company was “at its best”, and she could peaceably leave the company to other trusted hands. She continued as the Principal of SBA for another four years, before appointing Jeffrey Tan, an ex-dancer from SDT, as the Principal of SBA. She remembers her years with SDT fondly and reminisces that “not many are able to do what they love so deeply for a lifetime”.


1956 – Trained at the Malayan School of Dance

1958 – Trained at Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA)

1964 – Joined The Australian Ballet School as a student

1966 – Came back to Singapore, taught at SBA

1966 – Danced Giselle with her brother, Choo-San

1969 – Married Mr Daniel Teo

1971 – Took over as Principal of SBA

1981 – Cultural Medallion winner

1985 – Co-Artistic Director of Ballet Group of the National Dance Company with Anthony Then

1987 – Formation of SDT formally announced

1988 – Co-Founded SDT with Anthony Then

1988 – (12 June) First performance, Beginnings

1989 – Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal)

1991 – SDT moved to Fort Canning

1992 – SDT’s first full-length ballet, The Nutcracker staged by Anthony Then

1995 – Premiere of Ballet Under the Stars

2002 – Fellowship from the LASALLE College of the Arts

2002 – SDT performed Reminiscing the Moon by Boi Sakti at Esplanade’s Opening.

2003 – Invited to be a Jury Member for Benois de la Danse Prix in Moscow

2008 – Jury member for the Genée International Ballet Competition in Singapore

2008 – Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Dance in London

2014 – Inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame