The passing of choreographer Choo-San Goh, who died at the age of 39 in New York Saturday, is a loss of incalculable magnitude.
Those of us in Washington who witnessed his artistic blossoming over the past 11 years, in his role as resident choreographer and associate artistic director of the Washington Ballet, have an enormous legacy to be grateful for. And his works -- 34 ballets created since 1973, 14 of them expressly for the Washington Ballet -- will live on and transmit his genius to posterity.
His life has been cut short, and the inspiration of his presence and creative imagination, his love of dancers and dance, will be missed in many quarters: by the dance world at large, deprived of one of its most prolific young masters; by the nation's capital city, which Goh put on the map to a degree matched by few others in any art form; by Washington Ballet artistic director Mary Day, who discovered and nurtured Goh's talent; by the company dancers who soared to celebrity on the wings of his creations; and by his audiences, who delighted in the revelations he brought us.
Among other things, Goh's ballets will stand as a testament to the fructifying effect of the cultural blending of East and West. He was born to Chinese parents in Singapore, where he was raised and received his earliest dance training, most notably from an older brother and sister who had traveled to London to study ballet. After earning a university degree in biochemistry in Singapore, he made his way to Europe to seek a ballet career of his own, ending up as a dancer with the Dutch National Ballet in the early '70s. It was there also that he began choreographing in earnest -- he'd already tinkered with making dances as a teen-ager in Singapore. In 1976, he came to Mary Day's notice and arrived in Washington at her invitation to stage some of his work for the Washington Ballet. By the fall of that year, he had made the move to Washington permanent.
It is no exaggeration to call his choreographic ascent meteoric. Within two years of his arrival, he had choreographed six ballets for the Washington company, as well as the first of many pieces for troupes elsewhere (a jazz ballet for the Gus Giordano Dance Company). He had also attracted the attention of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who met with Goh in Washington, watched him work and laid the groundwork for a major commission for American Ballet Theatre. The commission was realized in 1981 as the ballet "Configurations," first danced by Baryshnikov and a contingent of ABT dancers at Lisner Auditorium as part of the Washington Ballet's historic "Golden Gala." The creation and performance of the work were documented by London Weekend Television, a videotape now commercially available as "Baryshnikov: The Dancer and the Dance."
The tape, which includes a complete performance of "Configurations," is valuable for many reasons, not least the way in which the special prowess and intensity of Baryshnikov are highlighted by Goh's choreography. It's also a concrete illustration of the strengths of Goh's artistry -- his command of the classical vocabulary, his formal clarity and ingenuity, his strikingly individual dance imagery, his brilliant management of ensemble patterns and space, and his sensitive musicality (the ballet is set to Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto).
The video also includes informal footage of rehearsal and discussion and conveys some of Goh's personality. Unassuming, modest to a fault, realistic and hardheaded but genteel and cheerful in manner, he always seemed to be lit within by the joy of working with dancers. These weren't just personal qualities -- they found their way into his work as a kind of euphoric subtext.
By 1978, Goh had created two of his most durable and popular ballets. The first was the brilliantly propulsive abstraction "Fives," to Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1, which was for many seasons a Washington Ballet signature piece. "Double Contrasts," the other, is a glittering nocturne dressed in black and white, suggesting not only piano keys and the pair of solo instruments featured in Poulenc's Double Concerto, but also the air of urbane sophistication the music so potently evokes.
In common with "Configurations," these ballets -- and the majority of Goh's other works -- display features that seem quintessentially Chinese, though they in no way allude to anything specifically derivative of Chinese dance. Goh's dance language is that of classical ballet -- its basic positions, stances and steps. But what gives his choreography its particular, personal character is the coloration he achieved through the sculptural use of arms, hands, fingers, the neck and head to carve out angled and curvilinear shapes suggestive of Chinese calligraphy and painting.
Other influences entered into Goh's style -- the modern dance use of contractions and floor work, for instance, inspired by work he'd seen by American modern choreographers like Paul Taylor, and by choreographers he worked with as a dancer with the Dutch company, and by others, like Glen Tetley, who drew upon modern dance techniques as a ballet resource. The distinctive aspect of Goh's work, though, appears to derive most strongly from the Eastern tinge of the body shapes he favored. One sees this quite clearly in a ballet like "In the Glow of the Night" -- the 1982 work to music by Bohuslav Martinu that plays abstractly with the idea of phases of the night and corresponding emotional auras, perhaps Goh's deepest and most perfectly realized opus. But it comes to the fore most conspicuously in his last completed ballet, "Unknown Territory," which was also his first collaboration with a composer -- Chicago's Jim Jacobsen. Everything about this beautiful work, premiered by the Washington Ballet in February of 1986 -- from its exotically tinged music, to the lacquered gleam of the lighting, to the sharply stylized set and costumes by longtime collaborator Carol Vollet Garner -- suggests an imaginary Orient, crystallized into a ritual wedding ceremony.
In this respect, Goh's choreography is an emblem of the cultural tide of an era. More and more in retrospect, the innovative initiatives of the arts of the second half of the century trace their origins to inspirational sources from beyond the Western orbit -- from Africa, India, Latin America and the Far East. Goh's work, apart from its treasurable individual aspects, perfectly symbolizes this meeting of worlds.
It will be up to history to decide exactly what place Goh's creations as a whole have earned within the spectrum of international ballet, though it is clear already from the originality, flair and compositional mastery of his principal works that his contribution has been sizable. Indeed, in the interval that has passed since the emergence of Eliot Feld in the generation previous to Goh, it is hard to think of more than a handful of potential peers.
In any event, we know Goh's artistry has been an immense gift to all who care about the art of ballet. A year ago, in an interview with The Washington Post, Goh recalled his early years here in a statement that seems a fitting valedictory:
"It was a terrific growth experience. When I got here, the dancers were more students than professionals, but then so was I. We grew together, and I had opportunities here I couldn't have had in any other place. I learned a tremendous amount from Miss Day, and I owe her enormous thanks for trusting what I did artistically, for giving me a free hand as a choreographer and for guiding me. Most of my best ballets came out of the Washington Ballet."
A memorial service for Goh will be held at 2 p.m. on Jan. 4 at Washington Cathedral.