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About the Change

John Meehan

Artistic Director of Hong Kong Ballet

By Natasha Rogai

© Conrad Dy-Liacco

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Parts of this interview previously appeared in the South China Morning Post.

“As I look back on my career, I probably danced more performances with Margot Fonteyn than any other partner.” A surprising statement, considering Hong Kong Ballet’s new Artistic Director, John Meehan, is some 30 years younger than the great ballerina. But then his career has been surprising in many ways.

Meehan was born in Brisbane, Australia. His father was a butcher (not the most artistic of professions), but was a member pf a large Irish family with a passion for musicals “they all played an instrument, they sang, they danced, and part of our family folk lore was that my father had tap-dancing lessons…”. As a child, Meehan was given the choice between joining the boy scouts and having tap lessons but, having chosen tap, “I used to watch the ballet class before my tap class, and thought that looked more interesting. So I said I’d like to learn ballet, and my father said to my mother, “No son of mine is going to learn ballet!” Nonethless, he was allowed to switch, and had the good fortune to study with a fine teacher, Patricia MacDonald, who trained him in the Royal Academy of Dance method.

However, he did not start full-time ballet training until he was 17, as his parents insisted on his graduating high school first, something he would later regret. “My technique would have been much better if I’d started taking class every day at an earlier age.” Instead, he attended a boys’ grammar school in Brisbane where, while continuing to take ballet, he became a champion runner, holding the State record for the half-mile, and captaining his State and school teams. “It made me very competitive, which is a terrible thing, and set me up badly for the rest of my life.”, he says with a laugh. “It doesn’t help to want to win in life, because there is no winning. There’s succeeding, but winning is different. It’s not as cut and dried as it was on the track.”

After attending the Australian Ballet School, Meehan was accepted into Australian Ballet, rising swiftly through the ranks to become a Principal Dancer after only 6 years. “Now I look back, and think it was much too quick, I never really quite got the technical foundation that I needed…I had more talent than technique.” His running experience, while giving him fitness, stamina, and the experience of working through pain, had the disadvantage of developing the wrong muscles. Nonetheless, his tall, elegant build and classic good looks made him a natural danseur noble, and he was also noted for his outstanding acting ability in parts such as Basilio in Don Quixote, and the title role in Cranko’s Onegin.

John Meehan and Wang Jia-hong, Assistant Artistic Director with the Hong Kong Ballet
© Conrad Dy-Liacco

In 1975 came a crucial turning point, when choreographer Ronald Hynd cast Meehan and his regular partner Marilyn Rowe as the leads in his creation of The Merry Widow, a ballet which was to have great significance for Meehan’s future.

Merry Widow was a huge success, leading impresario Sol Hurok to offer the company a tour of the US. However, to guarantee ticket sales, he insisted that either Margot Fonteyn or Rudolf Nureyev must star. “So it was either going to be Rudy with Marilyn or Margot with me, and it ended up with Margot and me.” Fonteyn was 56 at the time, but dancing with her was still a wonderful experience. “There were some pros and some cons, but way, way more pros than cons. Her feet were basically not very strong any more – during the intermissions, I remember she would sit there with this little electric stimulator she would put her foot on, and it would send a current through. She had incredible flexibility still in her back, her arms were fabulous, her expressiveness was beyond belief. She could turn herself into someone my age… She taught me so much about the emotional depth of a character, how to relate to your partner, how to focus.” Meehan recalls a moment in rehearsal where, putting a cloak around the heroine’s shoulders from behind, he felt Fonteyn’s back convulse. Defensive of the ballet, “I said to her (how I had the nerve, I don’t know) ‘We really think highly of this ballet and this is not a funny moment.” She said “Oh, I’m not laughing”, and turned around and I saw she had tears in her eyes.’

Meehan performed Merry Widow with Fonteyn over 50 times in the States, London and Australia. He then joined American Ballet Theatre, dancing a wide range of roles and partnering some of the world’s leading ballerinas, including Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland. Partnering was one of Meehan’s greatest strengths, and something he particularly enjoyed. He believes that a great partnership requires: “Trust. You have to physically trust each other, but the other thing you have to do is to emotionally trust each other... If you have a great partnership, you end up becoming close. Marilyn Rowe and myself remain very close, even though we didn’t speak for years. I’ll never forget the moments we shared, they were very intimate, it’s like being in love with somebody. And it wasn’t just pretending, it was real emotion. It’s something that’s a great source of joy for me to look back on.”

After four years, Meehan made the bold decision to move from ballet to musical theatre, landing a lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, which he performed internationally and on Broadway (prophetically, he took over from Stephen Jefferies in the London cast). However, while enjoying this new area of his career, “I realised that with shows, when the show closes, you’re out of work. So ballet companies are not so bad, they’re more secure.”

John Meehan (Middle) with Merrill Ashley, Teacher Associate with the New York City Ballet, (at John’s right), Helen Ng, Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong Ballet and Hong Kong Ballet dancers.
© Conrad Dy-Liacco

In 1985, Merry Widow re-entered Meehan’s life when Ronald Hynd asked him to assist in staging it for National Ballet of Canada. “I didn’t really realise it, but he always had in mind that I would dance it - he had me partnering Karen Kain, and assisting him in putting it on. So Merry Widow again was very good to me, because I started guesting regularly with NBC, and also got some experience as a ballet rehearsal director, which was the beginning of my career as an AD.” To him this was a natural progression: “I think my whole career I was more of a balletomane than a dancer…. I wasn’t self-centred enough as a dancer. I wasn’t only living to dance – I was living to be around dance.” At 39, Meehan retired from dancing and became Artistic Director of Royal Winnipeg Ballet where he remained for 4 years before returning to New York, where he worked as a choreographer and teacher.

In 1996 Merry Widow brought about a third turning point when Hynd was asked to stage it for American Ballet Theatre and again called on Meehan to assist him. After working with the company as a teacher and rehearsal director, Meehan was eventually invited to take over ABT’s Studio Company, a training ground for promising young dancers. He points out with pride that today 50 of ABT’s 80 dancers are graduates of this group, which he led from 1997 to 2006 when he left to take up the post of AD at HKB.

Having worked so extensively with young dancers, Meehan says that the first thing he looks for is the right physique. “Peggy van Pragh always said ‘first I look at the face, then I look at the feet’, and I do exactly those two things. Physique is the most important thing, as heart-breaking as it can be, especially with young people. Many other aspects of a dancer can be developed, so it’s better to start with an instrument that one’s going to want to see on the stage. Then there’s coordination, musicality, a kind of inner sense of self, dignity… Technique is important, but I always try to keep the big picture, and see whether the person can actually get the message across with what they have. You can do that even with some technical limitations.”

Meehan is thrilled to be in Hong Kong, a city he has plainly fallen in love with. He is full of enthusiasm for the quality of the company he is taking over and pays tribute to his predecessor, Stephen Jefferies, for bringing the company from one level to another: ”I want to do the same. I want to create a company which is commensurate with this city - international, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, exciting I want the Hong Kong Ballet to be the best, I want it to be the equivalent of the best in the world.”

One major obstacle in the way of this “outrageous goal” is the lack of a core local audience for ballet. Meehan believes strongly that the key to tackling this is for the company to perform regularly in designated theatres, instead of the present system where they must appear at whatever venues and on whatever dates the Leisure & Cultural Services Department allocates to them. The success of the annual season of The Nutcracker – the one regular fixture in the company’s calendar, with a dozen or so full house performances every December - illustrates the point. “We cannot build an audience unless they can count on us being presented in the same places at the same times every year.”

Meehan is also aware of the need to overcome the all too frequent local assumption that a company from Hong Kong must be less good than those from overseas. For this, more marketing is needed: “We have to build the brand along with the quality of the company, to become recognizable as an excellent company.” The company also needs to perform more, in order to develop and retain the dancers.

John Meehan in the studio
© Conrad Dy-Liacco

Perhaps the biggest problem is lack of resources. Meehan believes that HKB has proved it deserves to move up the ladder of government funding, and hopes that the current re-assessment of support for arts groups will work in its favour. He also makes no bones about the need to pursue sponsorship from private and corporate donors. “We don’t have the tax advantages here that there are in the States, so we’ve got to become something people want to be associated with. We just have to become so sexy as a company that they can’t resist being associated with us.”

The first real chance to judge Meehan’s impact on HKB will be the Balanchine and Beyond programme in October. This includes two new works – Hush by American choreographer Stephen Mills, and the world premiere of Yuri Ng’s yeah yeah XI MEN QING, based on the Chinese erotic classic Golden Lotus. It will also feature two Balanchine masterpieces, Theme and Variations and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. This is the first time HKB’s current generation of dancers will tackle Balanchine (the company has not danced his work for over 10 years), and they have benefited from coaching by one of his favourite ballerinas, Merrill Ashley, with whom Meehan danced for a year at New York City Ballet.

How Hong Kong audiences will respond to a programme of short works (traditionally not popular here), and how the dancers themselves will cope with the technical and stylistic demands of Balanchine will be crucial to the success of Meehan’s ambitions for the company. “Hong Kong is a really big city, and I want this to be a really big, important ballet company, to match a big, important city. Hong Kong deserves the best.”

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