The sensational six are Michelle Baldwin, Haley DeForest, Jessica Patterson, Taylor Soma, and Jade and Ella Direnfeld. All of these young ladies attend Seabury Hall, except DeForest, who is enrolled at Kīhei Charter School. They are all top students who attend classes at the Maui Academy of Performing Arts (MAPA) and all will have prominent roles in MAPA’s Nutcracker Sweets production on Sunday, Dec. 5, at the Lahaina Theatre.
During this past summer, while other young people were relaxing at the beach, these six were pursuing their passion for ballet. They all live and breathe dance and aspire to professional careers (with the exception of Ella, who, her mother says, is too young).
Michelle was one of the 175 out of 2,000 talented dancers accepted into the Pacific Northwest Ballet Summer Intensive Program. The youngest girl in the program, she loved dancing with girls in her age group and at her level. She loved the live pianist for classes and the Balanchine technique. She wants to be in a place where she can dance five to six hours a day instead of the two to three she gets here.
MAPA’s sensational six include (left to right) Ella Direnfeld, Michelle Baldwin, Jade Direnfeld, Taylor Soma, Jessica Patterson and Haley DeForest.
DeForest came to ballet two-and-a-half years ago—relatively late on the ballet timescale—after she quite literally outgrew gymnastics at 5 feet 9 inches.
The others have been in ballet since they were very young, starting classes as early as age 3. Several began their studies at MAPA under Cynthia Murphy of the Alexander Academy. Murphy is credited with building the strong foundation that MAPA’s faculty—Virginia Holte, Kathleen McKeon, Derek Sakakura and Kathleen Schulz—have expanded. (Murphy has since left the island, but the ballet moms have conspired to bring her back for this performance of The Nutcracker.)
Jessica was accepted by all ten summer programs for which she applied, including the advanced program at Bolshoi Ballet in New York City, The Kirov Academy, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, North Carolina School of the Arts and Carolina Ballet. Ultimately, she chose Carolina Ballet and attended for five weeks.
She was also asked to attend the Kirov Academy’s year-round program in Washington, D.C. She decided against it this year, leaving it as an option for next year.
Haley attended Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah, primarily because they specialize in tall dancers. The academy is associated with the University of Utah’s Dance Department. She found that academy there offered the same caliber of the training as MAPA.
Jade and Ella, who are two years apart, have attended the Bolshoi Academy at the Westover School in Middlebury, Conn., for the last three summers. This year, Jade received an appointment to attend the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow and study there year-round.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for the young woman, one her parents are seriously considering. “The training is second to none,” said Maryanna Knottenbelt, Jade and Ella’s mother. “After being dancers in the company for a minimum of seven years, they [the teachers] have to take three years of training to become instructors. Jade has been told repeatedly, if she chooses to pursue a career, she has all the ingredients.”
Taylor has ballet in her genes. Her grand aunt was the great Enrica Soma Huston, who was a teenage sensation in the late ’40s in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (Google her image to view Halsman’s 1947 Life magazine cover). She married director John Huston and is the mother of actor Angelica Huston.
Taylor was the only 14-year-old to be accepted into the American Ballet Theatre’s prestigious New York City summer intensive, and also attended their California program. She was accepted into the Bolshoi program, too, but she wanted to be in New York.
Last year at 13, Taylor was chosen to dance the lead Spanish dancer in Ballet Hawai‘i’s Maui production of The Nutcracker, and this year, she was one of four to be selected to perform a solo with the ABT program.
Derek Sakakura, who is a performer at ‘Ulalena and a former professional ballet dancer, has also instructed these young women.
Sakakura, who will perform as the prince in MAPA’s Nutcracker Sweets, is thrilled with their talent, and quite frankly, surprised to find young women at this level on Maui.
“This is my first group of full-time girls, and all of them have potential for professional careers—some at a very high level,” said Sakakura. “It’s a tribute to their training, to MAPA, Miss Cynthia and their parents.”