Ballet is an international art form, and Maria-Monica Koo’s life certainly exemplifies that fact.
Her journey at a very young age from South Korea to Washington, D.C., came about because of a Russian ballet school. Five years ago, she established the Ave Maria Academy of Ballet in Ashburn, right in the heart of one of the most culturally diverse and internationally represented counties in the United States.
“Loudoun County is a good place (for a ballet academy),” Koo said. “I see a lot of parents wanting to do the best for their children.”
She started ballet at age 3 in her mother’s ballet school in South Korea. She moved from there to Sunhwa Arts School in Seoul, considered the best arts school in South Korea and one of the top schools in the world.
At age 12, she caught the attention of the legendary Roy Tobias, a founding member of the New York City Ballet, who selected her to perform the lead role of Clara in Universal Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
“I was very excited about it because you are only given one chance like that in your lifetime,” Koo said. “Universal Ballet only offers an audition each year to seventh-grade Sunhwa Arts School students because they have the most talented ballet students in South Korea. It is very competitive and, of course, all the most talented ballerinas want that part.
“My parents prayed all day so that I could be Clara. When I performed, my mom cried during every performance. She said it was the most happy moment in her life, watching me perform on stage.”
At age 13, she selected by Mariinsky Ballet’s Artistic Director, Oleg Vinogradov, to receive a full scholarship to attend the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington. Vinogradov directed Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet from 1977 to 2001.
“I received a full scholarship,” Koo said. “I completed six years of training there. Kirov Academy is a boarding school, so we would sleep, eat, study academics and take dance classes all day. The most difficult part was missing my mom.”
After finishing at Kirov, Koo spent several years touring the world as a renowned performer. Then, she transitioned into a successful career as an artistic director.
Under her direction and founder and artistic director, Gainesville Ballet School won the 2012 Seefeldt Award for Outstanding Arts Organization, presented by the Prince William County Arts Council. She has instructed aspiring dancers at both Gainesville Ballet School and the Washington School of Ballet.
About five years ago, she brought her talents to Loudoun County, establishing the Ave Maria Academy of Ballet in Ashburn.
In addition to annual Spring Recitals, Ave Maria performed “Swan Lake” last year and is preparing for a performance of “The Nutcracker” Nov. 17 in the Wadell Theater at NOVA Community College in Sterling.
She quickly established a loyal base of students.
“I have been here since it opened,” said Adie Denenberg, who will be in the role of Clara in Ave Maria’s upcoming “Nutcracker” performance, which is scheduled at 5 p.m. on Nov. 17 in NOVA’s Wadell Theater. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit avemariaballet.org. “Miss maria is the one who brought the love and passion to me for ballet. She has brought me very far and has helped me get to where I am right now.”
While Koo may have simply fanned the flames of Denenberg’s passion, she might have reinvigorated a dancer who was losing interest in Catherine Fortune.
“I started with real general dance classes when I was 4,” said Fortune, who will be the Princess of the Kingdom of the Sweets in ‘The Nutcracker.’ “We didn’t do much ballet. I just sort of remember dancing around like a bunny. When I was 8, I took ballet classes at another studio. I didn’t feel like I was getting enough training because we were learning the same stuff every year. One day, we were just driving down the road and we saw the sign that she was opening. We walked in and I was registered right then.”
Ave Maria Academy of Ballet is adjacent to the W&OD bike trail on Ashburn Road. The 4,000-square-foot building includes three studios, all equipped with specially designed, resilient flooring with marley coverings.
Last year, Koo performed the lead roles of Odile and Odette in Ave Maria’s production of “Swan Lake.” The male lead, Prince Pas de deux, was played by Casey Herd, the former principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet and former dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.
Having already achieved success as a ballet performer and artistic director, Koo is now gaining notoriety as an instructor.
Her pupils have been chosen to dance with the Pennsylvania Ballet and Kirov Ballet, and have been accepted to study with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.
I am very proud of my students,” Koo said. “They know the beauty of classical ballet and they are very kind to each others. They have the hearts of young girls and I am so lucky to have them. They are my angels.”
For more information about Ave Maria Academy of Ballet or the upcoming performance of “The Nutcracker,” visit avemariaballet.org.