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Ashburn ballerina brings faithful twist to the Nutcracker

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Each year when her studio performs “The Nutcracker,” Maria-Monica Koo adds her own twist to the classic Christmas ballet. As always, dancers in tutus and rhinestones skip and twirl through the Kingdom of Sweets to Tchaikovsky’s familiar score. Clara’s Christmas Eve adventures include candy cane jousting, fierce toy soldiers, falling snowflakes and tiny, scampering Mouse King minions. But Koo also adds a moment of spiritual serenity; during the first act, a ballerina dressed as an angel dances to “Ave Maria.” It’s her way of beginning the performance with a prayer.

Koo began the practice of saying a prayer before each dance lesson when taking classes at the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington as a teen. Her dance career began even earlier than that. Koo grew up in South Korea and her mother ran a ballet studio in Seoul. “She started stretching me when I was a baby,” said Koo with a laugh. She began ballet classes with her mom at age 3. 

In middle school, the ballerina was accepted to one of the country’s best performing arts schools, Sunhwa Arts School. At age 12, she played the role of Clara in “The Nutcracker.” When she was 13, Koo auditioned for Kirov and was given a full scholarship to attend the academy halfway around the world. The boarding school was a wonderful opportunity for the budding dancer, but training was intense and competitive, and she often missed her mom. 

“Because my parents weren’t here, the faith was very important,” said the self-proclaimed ninth-generation Catholic. “I had to depend on God.” For Sunday Mass, she and her friends would walk from the academy to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She was grateful when her parents and younger sister joined her in the United States shortly before she graduated in 1997. 

After high school, Koo earned her bachelor’s degree at La Roche College in Pittsburgh and began dancing professionally around the world. She danced in “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Don Quixote,” but her favorite role was “Swan Lake’s” Odette. “It's very romantic and classic and it shows the ballet technique,” said Koo. She relates to the demure character but feels empowered when performing her.

“You can express yourself through ballet, you can let it out. I’m no longer shy when I’m dancing,” said Koo. She also feels close to God. “To me, it’s like praying. When you pray, you feel like you’re connected with God and it cleanses your mind,” she said. “When I dance, I feel like I’m becoming a better person.

Maria Koo, founding artistic director of Ave Maria Academy of Ballet in Ashburn, dances as Odette in a production of “Swan Lake.” COURTESY

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After years of dancing, Koo founded the Gainesville Ballet School, where she served as artistic director from 2005 to 2013. A year later, she founded Ave Maria Academy of Ballet in Ashburn. She chose the name with the help of her prayer group from Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls. “I wanted to do something for God,” she said. “At the prayer group, we wrote a couple of Catholic names down and people voted. Ave Maria won.” 

Toddler-sized tutus hang in the windows of the two-story home that houses Ave Maria’s three dance studios. Pictures of Mary and Jesus hang on the brightly colored walls. Koo and two other teachers instruct the 80 students, ages 3 and older. Koo doesn’t have a preference which group she teaches. “I like all ages and adult classes, too,” she said. “When I teach adult classes, I feel like I am teaching young beautiful girls no matter how old they are.”

Though this year’s performance of “The Nutcracker” has come and gone, Christmas decorations and props, including a sparkling tree, still adorn the studio. Later this month, they’ll host “Clara’s Tea Party,” where participants learn dances from the ballet with a side of sugary snacks. The profits of the event will go to feed the poor. It’s one way to pay homage to the birth of Christ and the beloved ballet inspired in part by the spirit of that holy day. As Koo said, everybody loves a Christmas story. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018