The Ballet World Always Thought Balanchine Was Irreplaceable; Then Mr. Goh Came to Washington

updated 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a small boy in Singapore, Choo San Goh yearned to be a pilot. "I was exhilarated by motion and speed," he recalls. Goh still is, but now his elation comes from flying high as a ballet choreographer. At 31, he is mentioned as a possible successor to the New York City Ballet's legendary George Balanchine. Like the 76-year-old master, Goh produces stark, neoclassic ballets which rely on a mathematically complex counterpoint Since arriving in the U.S. in 1976 to become resident choreographer of the fledgling Washington (D.C.) Ballet, the wiry 5'10½" Chinese has staged 16 new ballets for companies from New York to Seattle. Now D.C.'s pride is D.C.'s worry—that Goh will be lured away by a major troupe. His work so impressed Mikhail Baryshnikov that the dancer volunteered to do a guest performance for Goh. An injury forced Baryshnikov to postpone the visit but it will be rescheduled. "It is always exciting to find a young choreographer with a new voice," says Misha. "And I really believe that Choo San Goh has it."

Baryshnikov is not alone in those feelings. The New York Times crowned Goh as "our current choreographic wunderkind." This year he has been commissioned to mount major ballets for the Joffrey, Boston, Pennsylvania and Houston companies. "It took nearly two years to arrange for him to come and work with us," sighs E. Virginia Williams, artistic director of the Boston Ballet. "His schedule is worse than Henry Kissinger's used to be."

Goh hardly seemed destined for such shuttle choreography. The youngest of nine children born to a cooking oil manufacturer, he was originally interested in biochemistry. But an older brother and sister attended the Royal Ballet School in England and returned home to open the Singapore Ballet Academy. Goh became their star pupil, and after high school he declined a science scholarship at the University of Singapore. "I decided a life of painstaking, repetitious research was not for me," he has said. He opted instead for a dance scholarship to a Swiss ballet school. He left home in 1970 with $300, a few changes of clothes and dreams of a career in dance. "I was too green to know I was daring," he concedes.

The muses were with him. Though the Swiss course disbanded soon after his arrival, Goh caught on with the corps of the Dutch National Ballet. Two years later he began choreographing for the company's ballet school. Word of his talent reached Mary Day, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, who asked him to stage a ballet for her troupe. Goh agreed, with immediate and stunning results.

"Since he hasn't had a traditional background, he doesn't worry about conventional pitfalls," says Day. "There is an innocence and naiveté about him which is reflected in the freshness of his choreography." Goh may appear retiring, but he can also be brutally candid and sarcastic with his performers. He demands precision. "It's murder to pull off the first time," says one of his dancers. "No," corrects another, "it's impossible."

For himself, Goh wants only a life of dance. He lives spartanly—and alone—in a Washington studio apartment. "My idea of relaxing is staring into space," he says. A domestic sort, he actually enjoys vacuuming. In the background, the stereo is constantly playing Wagner, Rachmaninoff or Bach, and Goh is choreographing in his head.

"This hectic pace is taking me somewhere," the dance world's hottest neoclassicist proclaims. "But I haven't figured out where. I try not to complicate the present with visions of the future."

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