Remembering Our Days; SDT Dance Pioneers


Jeffrey Tan started learning ballet at 21, became SDT’s principal dancer at 27, and SBA’s Principal at 46.

“Dancers are made, not born.” – Mikhail Baryshnikov

Talent scouted by the late Mr Anthony Then when he was with the Singapore Armed Force’s Music and Drama Company, Jeffrey Tan’s introduction to the world of ballet changed the course of his life forever, as he soared through the ranks as a dancer and a choreographer.

At the age of 21, Jeffrey started learning ballet under the tutelage of Mr Anthony and Ms Goh Soo Khim at the Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA). In that same year, he earned a scholarship to study at the London Studio Centre, but caved in halfway due to the immense demand on his physical body and fled back to Singapore. He decided that ballet was far too challenging for him, and was set on quitting and becoming an air steward instead.

However, under the wise counsel and watchful guidance of Mr Then and Ms Goh, Jeffrey was offered an apprenticeship with SDT in 1990, and went through five years of intensive ballet training under Anthony. He remembers his foundational years with fondness, knowing that he owes his success to the training he received from Anthony during that critical five years in his early 20s. Jeffrey considers Anthony’s intentional investment and influence upon his dance career as one of the greatest blessings in his life.

Having started learning ballet at adulthood, Jeffrey never dared to dream of becoming a principal dancer. But through pure grit and hard work, he was given his first opportunity to dance a principal role in Coppélia in 1995, just five years after joining the company. His debut performance on the 16th of December marked two pivotal milestones in his life – the beginning of his career as a principal dancer, and the fateful passing of his mentor, Mr Anthony Then.

In the years after Anthony’s passing, Jeffrey would often tell himself, “He thinks I can, so I can do it!” as he pressed on towards becoming a better dancer. Constantly regarding Anthony’s belief in his potential as his greatest motivation, Jeffrey strived to continuously push himself beyond his limits.

Through the bouts of grief and bereavement in the years to come, it was the life and death of Anthony that caused Jeffrey to persevere on in his endeavor of bringing pride and glory to the name of his mentor. It was the sense of pride that he is a Singaporean male dancer, as well as his efforts in continuing the legacy that Anthony Then and Goh Soo Khim had started in SDT that kept Jeffrey sailing through the tidal waves of uncertainty and challenges. Staying true to his promise, Jeffrey lasted the distance with the company and its co-founder Ms Goh, before retiring from the stage in 2008.

His 18 years with the company became a chapter of his life that was filled with many unforgettable memories. Of which, one performance that Jeffrey candidly remembers, with much fondness, was Anna Karenina by Andre Prokovsky in 1997. He was executing the last lift of Tasha Wong in Anna Karenina when he dislocated his shoulder. He was immediately rushed to the hospital once the performance ended, and did not even bow for the curtain call. As much as that may have been a blow to his confidence, Jeffrey found himself back on the stage the next day, dancing a second cast role, which thankfully did not involve any lifts. It was such an experience that proved to Jeffrey that his strong-willed passion and desire to perform remained true in the face of adversity and difficulties.

A fan of Jiří Kylián’s works, Jeffrey enjoys dancing dramatic ballets like Choo-San Goh’s Romeo and Juliet, Andre Prokovsky’s La Traviata, and Marie Claude Pietragalla’s Les Noces and The Rite of Spring, to name a few. Having been with the company for 18 years, Jeffrey has not only witnessed the growth of SDT in terms of artistry and as an organisation, but he has grown with the company as an amateur apprentice, to principal dancer, assistant ballet master, and resident choreographer for SDT in 2005. He also graduated from Queensland University of Technology with a Masters in Choreography in that same year.

Jeffrey’s first experience in staging a ballet was in 1992 when SDT performed its very first full-length ballet, Anthony Then’s The Nutcracker. Such a valued experience did not only give Jeffrey the opportunity of assisting Then, but also gave him an in-depth understanding of the ballet. Since then, Jeffrey grew a nudging passion for choreography, and The Nutcracker remained as a soft spot in his heart.

Jeffrey’s first creation was in 1996, when he choreographed Tribal Rhythm. It was so well received that it affirmed and encouraged him to further pursue the development of his choreographic voice, which led to the creation of Façade in 1999. As he observed other international choreographers, he quickly picked up styles and movements that resonated with him, and used them as inspirations for his own works. He was also awarded with the prestigious Singapore Young Artiste Award by the National Arts Council in 2001.

His other choreographies include The Little Mermaid, The Nutcracker, and Trio in 2005, Fuse and Last Watch in 2006, Breath of Love and Negro y Blanco in 2007, and Sometimes I Think I Remember in 2008, bringing it to a grand total of 10 works under his name.

Through persistent determination and a firm fortitude, Jeffrey ventured beyond the confines of SDT in 2009, and gave a hand at theatre and musicals, and other commercial and educational opportunities. He also choreographed and staged many local and international dance performances, including the Singapore Lyric Opera’s Carmen in 2011. He was also the Chief Choreographer for the National Day Parade in 2010 and 2011, and for the opening and closing ceremonies for SEA Games 2015.

The upcoming performance of The Nutcracker by SBA on 21st November is staged by Jeffrey, and it has a cast of about 250 dancers. More than staging this work as its new principal, this performance of The Nutcracker also commemorates the 20th death anniversary of Anthony Then.

Jeffrey sees his time with SDT as an opportunity that he is wholeheartedly grateful for, and envisions the company as a place of hope for future and younger Singaporean generations who aspire towards building a professional dance career.

1988 – Danced in SAF Music and Drama Company

1989 – Started learning ballet at SBA

1989 – Studied ballet in London Studio Centre

1990 – Joined SDT as an apprentice

1995 – Promoted to Principal dancer

2001 – Singapore Young Artiste Award Recipient by the National Arts Council

2005 – Resident Choreographer

2005 – Graduated from Queensland University of Technology with a Masters in Choreography

2014 – Principal of Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA)