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UI dance faculty members help pave road to Broadway for young performer

  alex ko, youngest student
Alex Ko, who at 12 became the youngest person to take advanced ballet courses at The University of Iowa, will play the title character in Billy Elliot the Musical on Broadway. Photo by A Talent Photography.

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.

But how does a kid—even a prodigy like Ko—find his way from the Heartland to the Great White Way? Before Broadway noticed Ko, his talent caught the eyes of faculty in the University of Iowa Department of Dance, who not only furthered his training but also 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 University 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, roughly translated from Chinese as Alex: In Memory of My Father, 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 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.”


"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."

—Eloy Barragan,
UI professor of dance


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 the producers of Billy Elliot approached him, 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 Iowa, through a special program for young children. So, at age 12, Ko was taking advanced ballet classes at the University, 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.” 

by Winston Barclay

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.