John Meehan: An Extraordinary Gentleman

Walk into John Meehan’s office at American Ballet Theatre and you get the sense that he is constantly multitasking. There are two desks, two phones and two TV carts with two sets of stereo equipment. This setup actually makes a lot of sense for this Australian-born former dancer who balances so many different responsibilities.

As artistic director of education and training, Meehan, 54, oversees the entire summer program at ABT’s five satellite locations. He is also the artistic director of the ABT Studio Company and a company teacher, giving class for both companies at ABT at least once a week.

Last January his role expanded to include heading up the new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT, a program of 20 high school-aged pre-professionals, designed to act as a feeder into the main company.

Not bad for a man who never thought he would teach. “I started teaching and it turned out to be one of the most fun parts of my day,” Meehan says. “It’s still a huge responsibility. You have to have a lot of energy to get up there in front of people, but it’s tremendously satisfying. There’s nothing quite like going into a room of talented people and working with them.”

Meehan took his first dance class—tap—at age 10 but often watched ballet class at his Brisbane studio, thinking it looked more interesting. “It seemed to use much more of the body and be more expressive,” he says. “Somehow it appeared more serious to me at that point. And I responded to the music.”

So at age 11, he began ballet training with Patricia MacDonald, a former student of The Royal Ballet School. He moved to The Australian Ballet School at 17 and joined the company just two years later.

“[Becoming a professional dancer] was hard because you have to have a lot of courage in your conviction,” Meehan says. “All of the pressure from society was to say, ‘Forget it. It’s not what men do.’ On the other hand, there weren’t that many men, so the competition wasn’t that great.”

Meehan quickly rose through the ranks at The Australian Ballet, becoming a principal dancer in 1974. At 6 feet tall, he made an able partner to most of the ballerinas and excelled in dramatic ballets such as Swan Lake, John Cranko’s Onegin and Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow.

It was on a U.S. tour of The Merry Widow in the ’70s (when Meehan partnered guest star Margot Fonteyn) that Lucia Chase, founding director of Ballet Theatre (now ABT), offered him a contract with her company. “I had thought about going overseas,” Meehan says. “Being Australian, I was brought up feeling part of the colonies, so I wondered what it would be like to be part of The Royal Ballet. But this from ABT—I thought it would be a little bit daring and adventurous.”

He appeared as a guest star for ABT’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House and then joined as a principal dancer. He stayed for four years, dancing a large portion of the repertory alongside the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Gregory.

During a strike at the company, Meehan decided to become a freelance dancer. He landed roles on Broadway, notably in the Andrew Lloyd Webber show Song and Dance, and took gigs when they came his way. One, with Merrill Ashley, led to a year as a guest artist with New York City Ballet as her partner.

When The National Ballet of Canada mounted The Merry Widow, Meehan took the opportunity to help the choreographer (by this time, he had been choreographing a lot himself) and then danced the ballet with Karen Kain.

“A lot of wonderful things happened in my career right at the end,” Meehan says. “I enjoyed my freelance life, and I was getting older. I thought it was time to quit.” He retired from the stage at age 39.

Right before his last show with NBC, Meehan told a Toronto newspaper that he would like to try directing a company. The next day, a package arrived from Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet asking him to apply for the artistic director opening there.

“I always felt throughout my career that I was like a balletomane,” Meehan says. “I was there enjoying what I was seeing almost as much, if not more, than dancing. I took notice of what made a good dancer—a lot of things that dancers don’t necessarily think about.”

He took the job, but after four years, he says he “deflated” his career by returning to New York for the sake of his private life. The next couple of years, by his own admission, weren’t as busy professionally. He freelanced, taught and choreographed.

So when ABT added The Merry Widow to its repertory in 1997, Meehan came to help. That led to the job running the studio company, ABT’s 12-member junior group. Meehan recalls, “When Kevin [McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director] and I talked originally, I said, ‘I think I’d prefer to work with mature dancers, not the young ones.’ But I started, and I loved it!”

He has since built it into a prestigious company in its own right. Competitors at the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix vie for a position in the company each year, and many new talents are discovered on the annual summer intensive audition circuit. Now, about 35 dancers on ABT’s current roster are former studio company members, including Misty Copeland, Erica Cornejo,

David Hallberg, Danny Tidwell and Michele Wiles. In fact, at a recent ABT performance, an ex-dancer paid Meehan the ultimate compliment, saying, “The studio company used to be the place to go when you couldn’t get into ABT. Now it’s the place to go if you want to get into ABT.”

Because of the success of many studio company dancers, Meehan began to think about forming another group of even younger dancers who could join the studio company when its members moved on. That idea planted a seed that quickly grew.

In October 2003, Meehan mentioned creating a program for young dancers to a donor, who agreed to fund something more like a school: new classes for advanced dancers ages 14 to 18. The only catch was that it had to be ready in three months. Auditions in November 2003 located 10 dancers for the first class at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT. (The school was named for Onassis, who served on the company’s board of trustees for more than 25 years and was honorary chair until she died in 1994.)

This past September, the program expanded to accommodate 20 dancers and the administration created a five-year plan, which includes adding a second track of open classes alongside the pre-professional program in the near future. Other long-range goals are to start more classes in studios around the country.

“We [at ABT] look at ourselves as America’s company because we’ve always toured,” Meehan says. “So the grand idea is to actually have an ABT presence in certain big cities through the school. The company will visit them often through performance, and the community will feel involved.”

With a firm base already established with the ABT summer program (in Austin, TX; Tuscaloosa, AL; Orange County, CA; Detroit, MI; and New York City), developing a vision for the new school hasn’t been difficult so far.

“I think the philosophy is to offer the public the kind of training that ABT dancers need to have,” says Meehan, “that is, a very simple, unaffected classical ballet base and also a knowledge of modern techniques so that when choreographers come along and fuse the two, dancers are prepared.

“We keep finding dancers who are good at one thing but maybe not so good at another—some that move really well but their ballet technique is a little funky or that are very schooled but can’t do free-moving jazz. We want to try to address that at the educational level.

“I do feel a lot of responsibility for the school—just to make sure that people are getting good training and they’re building toward a professional career, even if it’s not at ABT,” Meehan says.

Meehan has developed a reputation for being honest—about the good and the bad. He will tell a girl she is probably too tall for ABT or a boy that he needs to do pushups every day to be able to do a shoulder sit. “People in the dance world often will not do that,” he says. “They won’t go there, and I think that’s irresponsible of directors and teachers. I think dancers deserve that.”

At the same time, Meehan says, “It’s harder with young dancers because they can change so remarkably. You have to be careful that you don’t close a door that actually will open because something will click in the dancer’s head or bodies change.”

Come January and February, Meehan’s schedule gets busier when he and his faculty take to the road on ABT’s summer intensive audition circuit, seeing dancers in 17 states and Washington, DC.

Still, no matter how busy his many titles have made him, Meehan is the picture of cool at work. His charm is readily apparent as he walks the halls of ABT, peeking into studios where the dancers wave to him and kissing the cheeks of good friends along the way.

Meehan says he now has a hard time looking at old photos and remembering that he actually accomplished what he did. Remarkably, he says that he can recall only one instance in the last 15 years when he missed his old performing life. “I saw The Merry Widow with Karen Kain and another guy,” he says. “That was my old partner and my old role. But that’s it.”

Rather than say, “once a dancer always a dancer,” Meehan now considers himself a teacher through and through. For two months in the summer, in company class every week and now in the new school, it is his responsibility to share what he has learned with the next generation.

He recognizes that some things have changed since he was taking class. “Nowadays, to be a good teacher, you need to explain quickly and move on,” Meehan says. “My class tends to move fast and be packed with a lot of information. Also, my exercises are not simple; sometimes they can be too complicated. But if people stay with me in a class, they get a good brain workout as well as a body workout.”

Meehan plans these classes and does other administrative work during his 100-mile commute each day from his home in Rhinecliff, NY, where he enjoys more of the wide open than city dwelling has allowed him. “Australians are used to a lot of space,” he says jokingly, but really he has just discovered what makes him happiest.

“I don’t think I ever set out to be a ballet teacher,” Meehan says. “What I love, though, is knowing that things could be better if you just give dancers some information. That’s what excites me.”

Photo by Eduardo Patino

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