Goh Lay Kuan
Dance pioneer and arts activist
Goh Lay Kuan is synonymous with the birth of modern Singapore theatre. The Singapore dance pioneer and arts activist co-founded Practice Arts School (renamed in 2010 as The Theatre Practice) with her late husband Kuo Pao Kun. As principal, teacher and choreographer of its dance wing, she created acclaimed dance works including Singapore’s first full-length modern dance, Nu Wa – Mender of the Heavens, in 1988.
Lay Kuan also created many original dance dramas for children of all ages. She developed performing arts education for the young and the physically handicapped, starting the Play-In-Arts programme for three- to six-year-olds and classes for intellectually disabled children that integrate various art forms.
Born to Chinese-school teachers, she started learning ballet at age 15 despite parental disapproval. At 19, she went to Melbourne, Australia, to train at the Victoria Ballet Guild. Within four years, she had graduated with honours and become principal dancer at Ballet Victoria. But encounters with racism prompted a decision in 1964 to go home.
In 1965, she and playwright Kuo Pao Kun, who had been at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, returned to Singapore to find almost no contemporary performing arts scene. On July 1 that year, they married and, on the same day, founded the Singapore Performing Arts School. It offered integrated dance, drama and music training, introducing children’s programmes and performing arts education to Singapore. Lay Kuan taught the first ballet course in 1965.
Hard times hit when the couple were detained without trial in 1976 for alleged communist tendencies in their works. Lay Kuan, then dubbed “The Red Ballerina” by the press, was soon released but Pao Kun was in jail for four and a half years. Meanwhile, she cared for their two young daughters and ran the school.
The school was revitalised when Pao Kun was freed in 1980 and resumed writing plays and staging productions. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Lay Kuan expanded her dance repertoire, exploring traditional Chinese, Indian and Indonesian dance, and training in modern dance at the Martha Graham School in New York.
In 1988, she created the Play-In-Arts programme for pre-schoolers and in 1994 launched the Student Theatre Exposure Project (STEP). She was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1995.
Lay Kuan is now artistic advisor to The Theatre Practice. She still teaches the Play-In-Arts programme as she believes those who start training from young will grow up to appreciate the arts.
"If the sky falls, I will use it as a blanket." - Letter written by Goh Lay Kuan, as read in The Red Ballerina, 2010
"People look to The Theatre Practice for inspiration, they look to The Theatre Practice for leadership, and they look to The Theatre Practice to tell us how to do theatre." - Singapore theatre educator Thirunalan Sasitharan