A Conversation with John Meehan

Who is John Meehan, you may be asking?  Meehan had an astounding ballet career dancing as a principal for the Australian Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and traveling the world as a choreographer, teacher and guest artist.  He also did stints as the Artistic Director of ABT II and Hong Kong Ballet and is now teaching at Vassar College and serving as the Director of the Vassar Repertory Dance Theater, but enough of his long and accomplished resume.  Meehan was recently in town to set Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow — a ballet he has an intimate history with having originated the role of Count Danilo  — on the Joffrey.  “It’s a very romantic, very fun evening,” says Meehan of the 1975 ballet. “Very sumptuous sets and costumes, big sets and costumes, lots of people dancing…it’s a very rich, theatrical experience.”

RB spoke to him in January during an afternoon break in rehearsals (our original interview time had to be rescheduled because the dancers threw him a surprise luncheon on his last day here) and talked about his connection to the ballet, the Joffrey dancers and some of the famous ballerinas he partnered…in his own words.

John Meehan

A Lucky Ballet

When it was being created, none of us knew what to expect.  It was very surreal to be the first cast.  The wonderful thing about having a role created on you is that nobody leaves anything in that you can’t do.  It’s always the best thing for you.  It’s always the way I think you develop the most as an artist and also technically you develop so much, because you rehearse so much and you sometimes have to stretch and do things that you think you can do but have never done before.  I was working with Marilyn Rowe, who was a wonderful dancer in Australia.  It was a great experience.  Another thing that took us all by surprise…none of us expected the success that it turned out to be…just astounding!  I had a pretty long career as a dancer, but there was no other moment in my career more amazing for me as an artist than when the curtain went down after the first performance of The Merry Widow.

It’s been a wonderful ballet for me.  It was 10 years before another company got the ballet and that was because The Australian Ballet held on to the rights and wouldn’t give it to anybody, even though lots of companies wanted it.  The ballet has given me so much…first of all, there was a tour with the Australian Ballet soon after we did it, and because of that tour, I was offered a job in New York and I joined the American Ballet Theatre.  So that was one way “the widow” was good to me.  When the National Ballet of Canada did it ten years after The Australian Ballet, Ron asked me to come set the piece with him and dance it with Karen Kain and we made a film, so that was another way it came back to me…there’s actually a film of the production and I got to be in it, which you always want to do…and it happens rarely, so that was a wonderful thing.  I retired in Canada…when it came back after the original set of performances, I had some experience rehearsing the company and I gave an interview in Toronto, and because of that interview, the Royal Winnepeg Ballet sent me a package and asked me to apply as Director there and I got that job as an Artistic Director at the age of 40, so The Merry Widow was very good to me again.  Then in 1997, while I was setting the ballet on ABT, which is my old company as a dancer…I went and helped set it and taught company class there at the same time and they asked me to teach more regularly and finally they asked me to run their junior company as Director.  Again, The Merry Widow was very good to me.  In many ways I feel I owe The Merry Widow a great deal.

The Joffrey

I’m very impressed with the company.  The principals are very good.  The company has a great appetite for this ballet and they’ve been very respectful a very, very quick to learn.  I really didn’t expect the company to be quite this good.  I really think the rest of the world is unaware of the level of the Joffrey Ballet.  It’s going to be a very pleasant surprise for everyone when they see the Joffrey in these next few years.  With Ashley as director, they’ve really, truly taken it to an amazing level.  There’s a lot of talent and a lot of interest.  There’s a tremendous discipline in class and in the studio and a great variety of repertoire that the dancers get to experience.  I’ve been very impressed with Ashley.  I’ve known him a long time, but not as a director.  He has the right instinct as a director.  He’s in the studio, he’s caring, he’s pushing…he’s a very impressive director…a very impressive company.

Dishing on Ballerinas

Cynthia Gregory (ABT) I was lucky enough to dance with some wonderful artists and Cynthia is certainly one of them.  She was so musical, so easy to partner.  We heard the music the same way, so there was never any guessing as to where she was or when she would hit a pique or a pirouette or whatever.  She always did it the same every time.  She was always with the music and I knew where it was going to be.  She was fun.  It wasn’t sort of a painful experience with her.  We didn’t spend hours and hours and hours digging.  When something was working, she was happy and we’d move on.  She’s a very, very dear person.  I see her every now and then and it’s always wonderful to see her.

Gelsey Kirkland (ABT) – Gels was quite the opposite (laughing).  It was a very interesting process with her, because she…it wasn’t always clear what she was going for, but you knew just from watching her dance alone that it was something really profound and that’s always worth the effort.  It taught me a great deal about finesse.  She wanted to work on the very, very smallest details.  Cynthia…she was prepared to let chance happen on stage and with Gelsey, she wanted chance to be a bit more controlled, I think.  It still happened.  She took big risks.  They both did, but Gelsey wanted to feel secure.  She wanted to feel like she’d looked at every possibility of the role and the movement and the partnering.  She wanted to expand and develop things.  She did a lot of that in the studio and it was quite painful sometimes, I have to say, but the results were amazing…truly amazing.  She’s an amazing artist.

Margot Fonteyn (Royal Ballet) – She was in her mid 50s and I was in my mid 20s.  The Australian Ballet – they arranged to do a tour (of They Merry Widow).  It ended up Margot dancing with me, which was just something I never thought would happen.  It was an amazing experience.  It was really interesting.  She’s such a woman of the theater that she taught me about dramatic focus and humor and comedy on stage.  She painted the role of the Merry Widow with very broad strokes.  She knew it was an operetta.  Until Margot had done the role, it was always rather serious.  We had a rather young, introspective approach to it.  Margot was quite the opposite.  It was very out there…not quite cartoonish, but on the way to.  When you think about an operetta, it’s not so deep and heavy, it’s more big, theatrical gestures and moments…not melodrama, but certain melodrama of humor (whatever that is), but the romance was very…was really played up as well, but it was balanced with humor.  I think there was more humor in it when she did it.  It was an amazing thing.  What she taught me, I was able to take to other roles and other partners and I was never the same again after dancing with her.  We did more than 50 shows together.  And then she asked me to come dance with her and do other things.  It was wonderful.  She wasn’t in her prime technically, but she had a lot going on still.  She had a very…her upper body was very free and very mobile.  She could move, when she moved, she really moved across the floor.  It was a tremendous experience.  You know, those three women couldn’t be more different and it was such a privilege to work with one of them…to work with all three of them was just incredible.

The Merry Widow runs Feb 16 – 27th at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E Congress.  Tickets:  ticketmaster.com or call 312.386.8905 or 800.982.ARTS

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