Goh’s career required leap of faith

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Ballet guru went from penniless to lifetime achievement award

The Vancouver Sun

Her parents Choo Chiat and Lin Yee started teaching ballet in 1978 at a W. 12th Avenue basement studio with a ceiling so low, dancers were unable to jump.

Today, Choo Chiat is a decorated dance mentor who put Vancouver on the global ballet map, most recently receiving a lifetime achievement award in the arts from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Choo Chiat could not have dreamed of this when he arrived in Vancouver in 1977, penniless, friendless and with rudimentary English.

“No, I never thought it,” Choo Chiat said inside the Goh Ballet Academy, a refurbished bank that still has a huge vault in the basement (costumes are stored there) and that has been the academy’s home since 1985.

“It touches my heart. Forty years here, can you imagine that time passing by? To think the mayor, the city, the world recognizes my work, it touches me deeply.

“When you do something and people recognize your work, I don’t know how to express the sweetness in the heart I feel.” Choo Chiat was born 78 years ago in Singapore, one of 10 siblings. He fell in love with ballet at 13 after seeing the 1948 film The Red Shoes, amazed by the beauty and the art form. At 14, he went to England to study at the Royal Ballet, followed by training with renowned Soviet dancer and choreographer Pyotr Gusev in China.

That’s where he met and fell in love with Lin Yee and where, to his family’s chagrin, he remained, becoming a principal dancer in the National Ballet of China.

It was fun at first: Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Giselle. Then the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution happened and suddenly the ballet was performing works such as the Red Detachment of Women.

“Ballets have kings, queens, princes in them, then the Cultural Revolution made everything the opposite,” Goh said. “Peasants and workers were the heroes.

“It was still dancing, but it was not ballet. They wanted strong movement, not grace, not romance.”

So Choo Chiat came to Canada, ostensibly to visit his sick mother. When it became clear by 1978 he was not coming back, the Chinese government permitted Lin Yee and their eight-year-old daughter Chan to join him.

“The Cultural Revolution left no career for me at all, so I thought why not take the opportunity to go to the West and look around, see what I can do with my life,” Choo Chiat said.

He applied for a job gutting fish in Richmond, but fate intervened and someone who had heard he’d been a dancer hired him to teach her children.

Soon after, the Gohs opened their first academy.

“It was very much a partnership from the start,” said Chan, now director of Goh Ballet Academy after a career as the principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada (interestingly, her parents did not want her to dance; it was an aunt who encouraged her to follow in mom’s and dad’s fouette).

“I’ve always looked up to my father because of the image of him on stage when I was a little girl,” Chan said. “He was so brilliant, his performances were so contagious.

“But also, he is such a great parent. He instilled such confidence in me, confidence I struggled to find. Confidence and he made me aware nothing comes without hard work.”

Choo Chiat is young at heart, is as passionate about dancing as ever. “No, no, no, you don’t have the beautiful eyes,” he tells a young student. “Do it again. Yes, that’s it!”

“When you see the dancer,” Choo Chiat said later, “you don’t just see the body. You see the beauty from their love of dancing.

“Physical technique is important, but just being technically very good does not make you a dancer.”

Next season, the academy will perform Prokofiev’s Cinderella to mark its 40th anniversary.

But at the moment, everyone’s readying for the Goh Ballet’s Nutcracker, a performance that has become a Christmas ritual for many since its inception in 2009.

The dancers are from the academy, but also from top companies worldwide — this year, dancers from Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet and the National Ballet of China will be in the cast.

© 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.

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