Canada 150: Choo Chiat Goh left dancing in China to build ballet in Canada

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To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

In 1976, the Cultural Revolution may have been drawing to a close, but China was still rocked by social, political and economic turmoil. Choo Chiat Goh, a dance artist trained in the western tradition of ballet, realized there was no future for him in the country.

So he took a chance. He left a dancing career and emigrated to Canada. Two years later, he founded the Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver, which is now recognized as one of the country’s top private dance centres.

Goh was born in Singapore. In a big family of 10 children, four went into dance. His brother, Choo San Goh, became a choreographer in the U.S. In Singapore, two sisters founded dance companies and academies.

Choo Chiat Goh followed a different path. He wanted to explore his Chinese heritage and ballet by studying under the Russian master Pyotr Gusev in Beijing.

It was at the Beijing Dance Academy that he met and married Lin Yee, a young dancer. After he graduated in 1959, he joined Central Ballet of China (now The National Ballet of China) where he became Principal Dancer.

In the early years, he danced leading roles in ballets such as Le Corsaire, Giselle and Swan Lake. Later, after the Cultural Revolution, he performed in the two politically approved ballets: The Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl.

By the mid-1970s, Goh’s mother was already in Vancouver. Because she wasn’t well, he was allowed to leave Beijing to visit her. At the time, he didn’t know if his wife or his daughter Chan Hon Goh, who years later became a star with the National Ballet of Canada, would be able to join him. Fortunately, the family was reunited a year later.

Goh Ballet Academy’s first home was in a basement studio with less than ideal conditions. The ceiling, for example, was so low that students couldn’t jump.

By 1985, the academy had grown to the point where it had to find new space. That year, it moved into its distinctive home in Mount Pleasant in a branch of the Royal Bank built in 1912 at Main and 8th Ave.

The senior Gohs built together a ballet academy recognized internationally for its dancers.

“Audiences come to the ballet not to see exceptional technique, but to feel something — the human drama and beauty that ballet can capture and express,” Choo Chiat Goh says on the Goh Ballet Academy website.

“Or course, dancers must have technique, but technique means little if nothing is expressed with it.”

Kevin Griffin

Vancouver Sun

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