An Extraordinary Gentleman
Anderson, Jocelyn, Dance Teacher
With the creation of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, John Meehan has taken on educational duties in addition to his work with the studio company and summer program. Here, he talks about teaching ABT's next generation.
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. …