Dancer Tan How Choon, 47, dies after fall at home

Tan How Choon organised free public performances by Ecnad and designed arts education programmes to nurture young dancers.
Tan How Choon organised free public performances by Ecnad and designed arts education programmes to nurture young dancers.PHOTO: ST FILE

Dance artist Tan How Choon, who co-founded Singapore's first full-time contemporary dance company, has died at the age of 47.

The co-founder of Ecnad died after a fall at home last Friday.

Tan, a gymnast-turned-dancer, trained at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) and in the United States.

He started the Dance Dimension Project in 1996 with artistic codirector Lim Chin Huat. It was renamed Ecnad - or "dance" spelled backwards - in 2001 and went on to become one of Singapore's oldest contemporary dance troupes.

It closed down in 2013 after 17 years due to financial woes and the imminent shuttering of its home, the Telok Ayer Arts Centre.

Tan was known for making use of unusual outdoor settings - such as fountains, sculpture plazas, courtyards and even the atrium of a bank - in his avant-garde, site-specific work.

He choreographed dancers emerging from fountains in public spaces such as Millenia Walk and Parco Bugis Junction and employed other innovative elements such as visual projections and live a cappella singing in his works.

He was devoted to arts outreach, organising free public performances by Ecnad and designing arts education programmes to nurture young dancers.

Cultural Medallion recipient Angela Liong, artistic director of dance company Arts Fission and Tan's former teacher at Nafa, says Ecnad was the earliest local group that tried to make contemporary dance accessible to the public.

"Both How Choon and Chin Huat were so creative in creating stunning visuals and incorporating them into dance performances," she says. "I haven't seen any other companies able to provide that kind of whimsical, playful accessibility in terms of contemporary dance."

Tan, who was single, was cremated the day after death, as his family decided not to hold a wake. He leaves behind his mother and two sisters.

Ecnad co-founder Lim, 48, who teaches at the Intercultural Theatre Institute, says Tan was like his "little brother" and "one of the most talented dance artists of his generation".

He recalls how, when they were starting out, Tan "shared everything, even his money. When there was no money, we shared our food".

According to him, Tan developed depression in 2002 after Ecnad's Arts Festival work Missing In Tall Pillars was panned by reviewers in the press and had a mental breakdown in 2011.

The closure of Ecnad was a huge blow to Tan, but he continued to create multidisciplinary work involving visuals, movement and music under the moniker "Choonie Tune".

To fund his artistic endeavours, he worked in a variety of jobs including service staff positions at food and beverage outlets.

Lim says he had plans to stage a comeback for Tan at some point. "I wanted to bring him back to the scene, to get him recognised by the younger generation who won't know of his contributions.

"We were going to turn the world upside-down again. If only he had the chance to carry on."

Correction note: An earlier version of this story stated that Tan How Choon was cremated the day of his death. This is incorrect. He was cremated the day after his death.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Artist helped make contemporary dance accessible to public'. Print Edition | Subscribe