As a young girl growing up on Maui, Jade Direnfeld said, ballet "sounded like fun," as she could dance with a pink tutu and tiara on stage.
But several years later, the Kula teenager has now turned that once fun activity and hobby into a career pursuit and will spend the summer at the renowned Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.
World-famous male ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov once danced with the group; so has one of Direnfeld's idols, 26-year-old Natalia Osipova.
Jade Direnfeld of Kula leaps in the air at a recent photo shoot in Ulupalakua. The 16-year-old, who will study at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, has also performed with the Maui Academy of Performing Arts and the Alexander Academy of Performing Arts in Kula.
Jennifer Rosenblad photo
"I'm really excited this year," Direnfeld said last week, noting that she also had the same opportunity to study in Moscow last summer but didn't go because the timing wasn't right. "I've been looking forward to it. It's an amazing opportunity."
The 16-year-old, who has danced with the Maui Academy of Performing Arts and Alexander Academy of Performing Arts in Kula, is one of 15 American high school ballet dancers who have been selected for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth program (NSLI-Y). The teens will spend six weeks this summer studying the Russian language, culture and ballet at the Bolshoi, according to the New York-based Russian American Foundation.
The program is an all-expense-paid opportunity funded by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, a release said.
Although she will be studying at the world-famous Bolshoi, Direnfeld said she was especially excited about being immersed in the Russian culture and learning more of the language. She will stay with a host family on the weekends after spending the weekdays in classes and in academy dorms.
Even though Direnfeld only knows a little of the Russian language, learning in class shouldn't be too hard, as she has already spent several summers training in classical Russian ballet technique at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive, which attracts young dancers from around the world to study with Bolshoi instructors in Manhattan and Connecticut. Some of those instructors speak little English, Direnfeld said.
Direnfeld will attend another round of the summer intensive this year before heading to Moscow.
Direnfeld is ready to take on the hard physical and mental work in Russia, as she has already undergone many long days as a student in the school of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she will be a high school junior this upcoming school year.
She previously attended Seabury Hall through her freshman year.
Direnfeld said classes at North Carolina, where current famous ballerinas have studied, run around one-and-a-half hours. She usually has two classes per weekday and four on Wednesdays.
"You're tired but you get used to it. Your muscles work up the strength and endurance. I don't mind getting a little sweaty."
Her classes range from technique, pointe and even modern dance.
There is also a rigorous academic program. Direnfeld maintains about a 3.8 or 3.9 grade-point average.
Direnfeld said she doesn't mind putting in her time and muscle to pursue her ballet dreams.
"It's frustrating sometimes . . . (But) I feel really happy when I'm performing."
But even the most focused dancer needs some inspiration.
Direnfeld said when she needs a pick-me-up she watches You Tube clips of some of her favorite dancers such as Osipova, who was born in Russia, and Gillian Murphy, who was born in England.
Marianna Knottenbelt, Direnfeld's mother, is confident in Jade, noting that people have always thought of Jade as being older than she actually is just because of how mature she acted and performed.
"Jade has always been very efficient at managing her time. They have to be well-organized," Knottenbelt said of student dancers.
Direnfeld hopes to dance someday with either American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Bolshoi or Paris Opera Ballet.
But like other teenagers, Direnfeld likes to listen to music and monitor her Facebook and Twitter accounts and also keeps in touch with her family that way. She also enjoys the tunes from boy band One Direction.
The teen has danced and played leads in numerous performances including in the Nutcracker two years ago, where she played the Sugar Plum Fairy and her now-13-year-old sister, Ella, was little girl Clara, in the MAPA performance.
Knottenbelt also dances ballet, although she confessed, "I was never as good as they are," she said of her daughters.
Knottenbelt's husband, and the girls' father, Lorne Direnfeld, a neurologist, can also tap dance.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.