Sept. 4, 2009
UI dance faculty helped pave the road to Broadway for Alex Ko
Iowa City youngster Alex Ko obviously has what it takes to be noticed, even at 4-foot-9 and 85 pounds. That's why on Oct. 6 he will join the cast of "Billy Elliot the Musical," performing the title role at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway (http://www.billyelliotthemusical.com/).
But how does a kid -- even a prodigy like Ko -- find his way from the Heartland to the Great White Way? Before Ko got noticed by Broadway, his talent caught the eyes of faculty in the UI Department of Dance, who not only furthered his training but helped make connections for him in New York.
After taking local dance training -- including the National Academy of Dance and Nolte Academy -- and gymnastics at the UI and the Iowa Gym-nest from an early age, Ko registered for the Dance Forum, the department's community outreach program. He was a soloist in the UI Youth Ballet's "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker" productions, and was featured in a youth ensemble of the UI Dance Gala.
He also began taking private lessons from faculty member Eloy Barragan, which began what has become a close mentorship. "He asked me to create a solo in memory of his father, Sam, who had recently died of cancer, and because of his young age, I asked his mother if it would be OK for me to ask personal questions regarding the death, memories and feelings about his father," Barragan explains. "Both said that this was OK, and this was the beginning of a very close relationship, and this experience made me begin to look at him as my own son."
That piece, translated from Chinese as "For Ko Cheuk Man. With Love. Ko Jun Dak", was first performed in Cedar Rapids.
That close relationship led to Ko's first experiences in New York. "In the summer 2008 my wife, baby boy and sister-in-law visited New York City to participate in the American Ballet Theater National Teachers Program," Barragan says. "We invited Alex to come with us, to experience New York, and to take classes with other teachers. This trip was wonderful, we become closer and we were one big happy family.
"We took Alex to Steps on Broadway (http://www.stepsnyc.com/) and it was there that someone from the production of 'Billy Elliot' saw him. His talent makes a lot of people pay attention to him. Wilhelm Berman and Peter O'Brian, teachers at Steps, contacted and met with us to talk about his potential and possible future. This was the beginning of his life changing not only for him but his entire family."
Ko also caught the eye of UI dance faculty member George de la Pena, who is the artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. He has performed in many productions on Broadway -- as well as in numerous television shows -- and played the title role in the film "Nijinky."
"I met Alex during the ASPIRE dance competition," de la Pena recalls. "He had tremendous physical attributes for dance and a precocious fearlessness. He also clearly loved dancing. I invited him on scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, and when he was approached by the producers of 'Billy Elliot,' his mother asked me how to proceed with agents, contracts and general preparation as an actor because of my history on Broadway. It all worked out very well for all concerned."
The "Billy Elliot" possibilities led to Ko's enrollment in dance classes at the UI, through a special program for young children. "When Alex was asked to return to audition for 'Billy Elliot' and was traveling back and forth from Iowa to New York City, I recommended that he take the ballet technique classes at the UI in the morning and continue his regular classes in the evenings at City Ballet of Iowa and his private teaching with me."
So, at age 12, Ko was taking advanced ballet classes at the UI, becoming the youngest student ever to do so.
Now that Ko has been taken into the "Billy Elliot" cast, Barragan says he has not only the talent by the personal attributes to become a success. "To work with him was always a pleasure: Alex is a very noble, kind and respectful boy," Barragan says. "His dedication and commitment to his goals are impressive and inspiring.
"Alex has so much potential, not only in dance but in many, many other disciplines. He is going to be successful in anything he puts his heart into."
De la Pena agrees. "Alex is going to be terrific in the show," he says. "He is very intelligent and focused -- definitely a star on the rise."
Learn more at http://www.alex-ko.com.
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