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    Meaghan Grace-hinkis 2021

    Meaghan Grace-Hinkis

    First Soloist, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Zoom video conference, Thu 17th June, 2021 

     

    Following David’s welcome to Meaghan, she told us they had been on stage late last night preparing for the final ballet programme of the season - Sleeping Beauty Act III. Tomorrow evening there’s another late stage call for diverts in preparation for opening next Saturday so it’s all coming together. It’s a much shorter season but very exciting and unbelievable to be back on stage. They’d not been able to do a full call of Sleeping Beauty in the studio because of COVID restrictions so it was the first time the whole Company had been on stage complete with costumes, sets and music and for a moment, even with masks, it seemed normal being back together, and was hopefully a nod to next season. Meaghan is doing Bluebird but not Florestan in this run as she’s in a divert dancing Voices of Spring with Valentino Zucchetti, so she has four shows of that and two of Bluebird.

    At the beginning of their last season (Sept 19-Mar 20) they started with Manon. Meaghan danced Lescaut’s Mistress which is one of her favourite roles and she adores anything MacMillan, particularly the big story ballets, so it’s always nice to come back to it. The solos are particularly difficult, and you have to make it look easy as if it’s nothing, especially in Act I after you’ve been sitting at a table for 20 minutes beforehand. Her Lescaut was Luca Acri who was making his debut. Ricardo Cervera was still around which was nice as he knows them well as dancers and people, so they had intimate conversations about portraying the role. By this point the technique is there so it’s dealing more with the character. Lescaut is a really big role. Luca learned the solos and pas de deux and then built on the character which is when the story comes to life. Lady MacMillan came to their stage calls and shows and was very pleased to see how they developed the characters. Chris Saunders taught her the role and coached with Ric’s help. She did it with James Hay for the general and then Valentino for the shows. Interpretations can change according to your partner which often happens.  In Nutcracker Meaghan has danced Clara with eight or nine different nephews. Thankfully everyone is so talented that a little work gets it back on track. It only takes very slight changes of grip to make a difference and you make sure it’s safe so when you make the position you know you can sustain it, otherwise it would be a disaster. The other day Marianela Nunez replaced Natalia Osipova dancing with Reece Clarke. They spent about three minutes trying a few pirouettes and a couple of lifts and it was so smooth. Reece is very tall so there are changes for the man, bending legs lower to make sure you’re on pointe and the landing is safe but it doesn’t take much because everyone is talented and professional. In Manon Act I there are technical solos while Act II has the difficult, humorous pas de deux. Meaghan explained you’re creating a zone, not projecting to the audience, as you are in a Manon world so it isn’t about ‘look at me’, and if you have done it right it feels so brilliant, special and personal. As an audience member you want to be taken to another place and that’s what should happen. You want to raise a laugh but it’s the last thing you should work for as the action is really just between you and Lescaut. You might look out front but you only see the brothel. Sometimes you hear the laughter, especially for the upside down lift, and sometimes not, and if you are in the zone you can forget and not even hear applause.

    The next programme was Enigma/Raymonda. Meaghan made her debut as Dorabella. It is fiendishly hard, although it looks cute and light, and she’s used to doing difficult, stamina-challenging things but this is right up there. She loves Ashton, the footwork, the bend of the upper body, the challenge of keeping the feet going while making the upper body look playful, it’s almost like two separate things happening in the body. Gary Avis and Bennet Gartside were her Elgars. She loves story ballets which take you to a different world, and there’s a similar feeling to Month in the Country. You get a special feeling of entering a masterpiece, being inside a painting, and it’s an honour to be there. This was a very difficult but brilliant bill. Meaghan did opening night of pas de trois and lots of solos in Raymonda, which is a tricky little number, especially after Dorabella, as your calves are kaput and you have to hop on one toe but it’s very rewarding with the grandeur and glamour. Nureyev always challenges dancers with his choreography.  David asked if she likes playing young girls as she does several. Meaghan said she loves to build a character, whatever the age, Clara is one of her favourites and Alina Cojacaru loved it too as the transformation scene in Nutcrackeris magical and even if you’re tired after a thousand shows it is still special and the magic never leaves you. It’s Clara’s ballet as you’re on stage nearly all the time. The Sugar Plum gets the day off, but Clara works very hard before the show!

    Last season we had de Valois’ Coppelia. Meaghan had danced the ballet once with ABT. This time she covered Swanilda and was in the studio a lot, learning the role which was amazing as Leanne Benjamin was coaching. She is incredible so it was a great experience and Meaghan hopes to do the role next time. This time she did Swanilda’s friends which is good fun with lots of dancing and a nice change from Nutcracker. Leanne as coach is very honest which is what you want. The coach is the dancers’ eyes and you shouldn’t look in the mirror too much as it gives you a false sense so you rely on the coach to tell you what you need to do and Leanne does just that. Ed Watson was a similarly honest coach leading up to her shows of Clara. She loved working with them both. Meaghan hopes Leanne coaches more, she has so much knowledge and she’s worked with so many incredible people over the years, was a Principal with a number of different companies, and danced for a long time. After Coppelia came Onegin, another ballet Meaghan loves, and she danced Olga, another favourite role, with David Donnelly for his debut as Lensky. They are very good friends, and it was a very big role for him. Reid Anderson came to coach and they had the most amazing rehearsals which you didn’t want to end. They took selfies so they would remember the moment. You want to do your best for Reid and impress him. He knows what he wants and it’s an incredible experience working with him. Her mum and David’s family came to watch, so it was particularly special and it was just before lock-down. Olga is a young girl but her journey is quite special. It was Meaghan’s third time in the role which is nice as you grow as an artist. She was there for Thiago Soares’ farewell performances and they wanted to do their best for him, so there was pressure. It was always brilliant to share the stage with him as he’s an experienced and intelligent actor - one of the best Onegins and Reid loved his interpretation so it really felt special. In their final show when Lensky gets very angry he shakes and pushes her and David pushed too hard, Meaghan couldn’t keep on her feet and went flying face down between Thiago’s legs! She thought this couldn’t be happening. For Thiago it was a bit in shock and for David definitely so but Thiago just picked her up, plopped her down and carried on. David had a shocked look on his face and she told him she was fine and just to concentrate on his pirouettes!

    They then had the double bill of Dances at a Gathering and The Cellist.  In Dances, Meaghan debuted as Apricot girl. She had done Robbins’ work in the USA. Jean-Pierre Frohlich had set Interplay in New York, so she was familiar with his style and had watched the work many times and loves Chopin so she was thrilled when she saw her name on the board. Ben Huys came to set it with Chris Saunders. It’s amazing to work with different people from the Trusts who know every detail and count and finger-tip. As a ballet it is so simple, pure dance, and you feel connected with your colleagues as part of a team. The first time she did it she and Nicol Edmonds, who was Green boy, said they’d never had so much fun on stage and it was even more special this year because of what they have all been through. Everyone had one thing in common – they’d been separated and starved of stage time and so were dancing from the heart, having been training in living rooms and crashing into furniture. To be back on the Opera House stage with simple costumes was incredible. Her Mum saw it too and said she hadn’t seen a cast of people enjoying themselves so much on stage. It’s not a story ballet but there are stories there because of the relationships between the characters. This time it was very emotional as our lives are built on relationships and they’d been apart for so long, and the audience was there, even though in masks. Each relationship in the ballet is different which is so like life and it’s a masterpiece and especially poignant to be doing it now.

    Last was Swan Lake. They managed five days but the lead-up was odd because they sensed closure was coming though no-one knew when. It was difficult particularly for the corps when you have to prepare mentally for the long run. On opening night someone had a fever and was sent home and they wondered if it was COVID which wasn’t a good start and it was panic-making. It was all very odd. David Hallberg, a good friend, was still here and he was so looking forward to doing that first show with Natalia. Disappointment was looming but they enjoyed the shows they were able to do. They thought they’d be closed for two weeks so kept preparing for an endless run which never happened.  It took a few days to assimilate what was going on. Meaghan’s family were in New York which became one of the worst affected places, so she was very stressed. Her sister works in a hospital and was seeing awful things. During the first lock-down the Opera House was amazing at putting together everything to keep them fit. They did morning class on Zoom, strength and conditioning, body conditioning, then added a full schedule which was what they needed to keep them fit. The Company has done remarkably well and it is probably because of this regime. When she was at home Meaghan couldn’t jump because her neighbour complained about the noise so she went to the park, jumping in trainers on uneven grass and hurt her ankle. Eventually you realised you had to let go of some things. Every ballet dancer in the world was in the same boat but it wasn’t easy with everyone in a different space. Doing class in her tiny Maida Vale flat Meaghan managed to knock a piece out of the wall with her pointe shoes! It was a real challenge and never to be forgotten.

    Athelhampton galas. Meaghan had previously made a video to Rolling Stones music. A friend, a partner of Mick Jagger, edited the music, there were dancers from the Opera House, an ex-ABT friend did the choreography, and it was all put together very quickly to raise money for Acting for Others (AFO). Suddenly she was being interviewed on news and radio and it really took off. They also had fun which they really needed and finally they were dancing in the street and the momentum made Meaghan wonder what else she could do. At the beginning of August, she had an idea of putting on an outdoor gala in the countryside if they could find a big house and garden.  Stuart Gordon, a friend from New York who lives in Dorset, said he knew the owner of Athelhampton House so he approached him and he loved the idea. From then it exploded and it was just three and a half weeks before the first show. Meaghan was permanently attached to her phone and laptop having four or five hours sleep at night, and was on a real learning curve. She didn’t want help and was determined to learn how to put on a gala. As a dancer you know what you have to do but dealing with production companies, lighting, staging and sound was different. She met incredible people and when she told them she was a novice, a dancer who wanted to learn, they were really helpful. The stage was built with ballet floor, sound, lights, and socially distanced chairs so everyone felt safe. She’s had amazing feedback and everyone was so grateful to see live dance and music with incredible musicians from the Opera House, and everyone felt very emotional. It was solo after solo but it was the best they could do. She danced with David and they did tests every day to make sure they were COVID-free. It was quite an experience and will be repeated this year which is great as it’s less daunting now she knows what to do, and most people will be vaccinated so there’s less stress. It’s now in the process of being put together and the dancers have agreed to come again. Last year because it was only three weeks before the opening they could almost see the weather would be sunny though in the second show of Onegin it rained for a few minutes and then stopped. This year the audience and the stage will be covered by a marquee so if it rains it might be noisy but better than getting soaked. The dancers will be vaccinated so they can dance together and do pas de deux and pas de quatre, and she is getting rights to various ballets – Ashton, MacMillan, and Johan Kobborg’s Les Lutins, so it will be meatier and longer this year. It will be another really special event but Meaghan wants to keep it intimate, so nothing too grand, and dancers and audience, who can picnic in the garden before the event, will feel close to each other. On the finance side, someone helps with keeping the numbers, a group who came last year are very supportive and have donated for the marquee, the cost of which is extortionate! The money benefits BRB, the Royal Ballet and AFO as she wants to keep it within the Royal Ballet family.  Carlos Acosta was so grateful last year and also AFO who give such support to theatre workers etc. They rely on ticket sales to cover costs of stage, floor, lights, sound and the rest is donated. People are very generous wanting to donate and they gave £45,000 to the Opera House and are hoping for more this year. There are a lot of logistics to consider – on line comments had mentioned sight-lines last year but they’ll try to improve that this year by raising the stage. It is now planned as an annual event, so it should get better every year. Does this give Meaghan an idea of what she might do in future - a possible career path? She said she’s still in the world of ballet but the pandemic has made everyone realise what they could lose and she’s loved it, the organisational side and making sure everyone is OK, and isn’t overwhelmed by it. The audience response was great and all her colleagues say she should do it down the line!

    This season has been peculiar with lots of starts and stops. Elite Syncopations felt very odd because the process of entering the Opera House was quite something and it was very hard with testing rooms and social distancing. Amazingly only one person in the Company had caught COVID. In Elite she did two performances of the sweetheart couple, a feel-good piece which was great and not too stressful. They thought Nutcracker might happen so geared up and Meaghan was cast for seven shows with two partners, Valentino and Joe Sissens who was making his debut. They had lots of rehearsals but did just one show so it was hugely disappointing, especially for Joe as they had worked so hard. Nutcracker was reworked with a new battle scene and it was great to work on it with Will Tuckett so she enjoyed the process and it was nice to be back rehearsing in a studio. Some people had a teacher in the room, but otherwise you were looking at them on a screen. But they were offered classes for pointe work, pas de deux and rep so she could keep up the stamina. It was also good for the corps to try out things. Alessandra Ferri was teaching the Juliet solo and it all ended being very special and a positive experience. They learned lots of pas de deux which many hadn’t done before. Chris taught Gloria,and they did Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. The lack of inspiration they’d been feeling with class on a screen changed and they rediscovered it in classes which was so nice. They achieved four shows out of 17 and then felt they couldn’t go back to practising in their living rooms but they fared much better than other companies – ABT were at home with no theatre and no end in sight. At least here they had something. Meaghan went home for a month after Nutcracker as she hadn’t seen her family for a year. She spent 10 days in quarantine, her mum dropped off her dog and her groceries, then she had three weeks with them which was wonderful. She came back when the company started to get back to something a bit more normal. With this recent block of shows it almost feels normal-ish. Meaghan debuted in Within the Golden Hour with James Hay who’s experienced in the role which was nice. She loved the ballet and the music. Chris Wheeldon was here to start working on his new ballet, watched rehearsals and gave feedback and they were actually able to do a run of shows which was satisfying.

    Meaghan also gave Instagram classes which went international. Bloch (the company whose pointe shoes she wears) had dance programmes on their Instagram and asked her to teach ballet live. It was strange as she knew 900 people were logging on and was saying ‘good job, well done’ although she couldn’t physically see them. Then different schools in the UK and New York asked her to teach class by Zoom which was an honour. ABT summer intensive had begun and they asked her to teach some classes for their students which was very prestigious and led to her teaching some of their school classes which inspired her to keep going as they are so committed and passionate. It was a very positive experience.

    Going back to the beginning and how she started dancing, Meaghan said she was from New York where she entered the Youth America Grand Prix at a very young age and won a scholarship to join the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school at ABT. It was early days - Baryshnikov had founded it but there was no money to keep going, and then it restarted. She trained there for a few years with brilliant teachers, heavily Cecchetti based. It wasn’t a full time boarding school and she also trained privately with an excellent French teacher from the Paris Opera. Now when French teachers come over it feels like home and she loves it. She then joined ABT2 which is now ABT Studio Company. They did a lot of performing and touring and after two years she joined the main company and spent two seasons at the Met as an apprentice and first year. She was cover for a girl who was injured so went on tour to London. Her Mum came as well and they stayed on an extra week after the tour at Sadler’s Wells ended. She asked her boss, Kevin Mackenzie, if she could take class with the Royal and he said of course. Monica Mason and Jeanetta Lawrence came and watched class and Monica offered her a contract. She knew this was huge but needed to think about it, and Monica let her take her time while she worked out visas etc. Kevin said they didn’t want to lose her but it was an opportunity not to be missed and here she is, almost 10 years later. She knew the Royal did a lot more MacMillan and Ashton and watching lots of videos she knew she really wanted to dance their works and learn first-hand from the people who’d been in the room with them. She also knew there was a lot of Chris Wheeldon, whose work she loved and whose company, Morphoses, she had seen in the States, and she also shared a private teacher with Beatriz Stix-Brunnel, who’d been in Chris’ company. She’d seen Wayne McGregor’s work on YouTube and she’d watched Marianela a million times on YouTube and knew of the great ballerinas over here. But it was really MacMillan and Ashton who were the big pull.

    Speaking of her first experiences in the company Meaghan said she was overwhelmed and very nervous. She’d come from a big company so knew the way they worked, being respectful of the senior members. The only person she knew was Bea, and she’d never lived away from home before which was hard, but her colleagues very quickly became her family, a very warm and welcoming group, and she felt it wouldn’t be as temporary as she’d imagined.

    First roles: she was Lilac attendant and covered Songbird in Sleeping Beauty, and also covered Rubies in Jewels. She started doing nice things quickly as in her first season Monica cast her as Clara in Nutcracker, with Ludovic Ondiviela, and she also did Asphodel Meadows and fell in love with Liam Scarlett’s work right away.  Monica was there for her first season and then Kevin O’Hare took over. She soon got the hang of how the Company worked and now ABT feels like another life. Her first Ashton role was in Fille, when she was probably a chicken! Christopher Carr set the ballet and she’ll never forget the chicken dance because of him – it’s engrained in her mind! Since then, she’s done The Dream, blue girls in Patineurs which is really fun, Scenes de Ballet, Rhapsody, Month, Enigma and La Valse. What makes Ashton so difficult? For example, with Voices of Spring it’s the bend in the body, making it look seamless and almost playful while coping with quick footwork and flexibility. Bending that much isn’t easy and yet you have to make it look so. With Dorabella it’s keeping the bending of the body, epaulement, changing of legs, and footwork and it’s surprisingly challenging.

    Since joining the Company, Meaghan has been in almost all of Liam’s ballets except Age of Anxiety. She created the role of Justine, and then danced Elizabeth in Frankenstein when it came back. She was principal in Visceraand debuted as principal in Asphodel. Liam had a huge influence on her career and some of her fondest memories on stage are in his ballets which she adores.

    The opposite extreme is Wayne’s work. She danced Leanne Benjamin’s role in Infra. It’s so physical, and you know when you go in for rehearsal, you’ll come out exhausted! Wayne is so intelligent and keeps your mind and body working together and it’s a fascinating experience. Meaghan was in Dante (Inferno) in Los Angeles and now he’ll create the other two parts of the ballet. Physicality is the first word that comes to mind. It’ll be a journey and an important part of Wayne’s career. The shows in LA were incredible with amazing designs and it all came together. What’s to follow will be amazing and very exciting.

    Chris is here starting rehearsals for his new ballet next year which seems early but probably because of his Broadway reopening and things come around so quickly. Meaghan has read the book Like Water for Chocolate and thinks it will be incredible. They have seen the set and costume designs and have heard some of the music. Chris visited the author, Laura Esquivel, and seeing what he has made so far is pure genius and it’s incredible how he has brought the book to life. The attention to detail is enormous and he won’t let it go until it’s right. He’s been working on it for a long time and drawing it up in his head and this shows.

    What is Meaghan’s highlight after nearly ten years in the Company? Right before the pandemic she felt she was really building up a momentum and before her promotion she was doing great ballets and the performances were feeling special which made the closure twice as hard as the momentum just dropped. She is hugely grateful for her time with Liam so that’s a highlight, now even more so, but the journey as a whole has flown by.  Someone said recently ‘you are a real Ashton dancer’ which was great because that’s what she wanted to hear and the reason she came here. There have been incredible moments, diving into what the Royal Ballet is and what they represent and just becoming part of it is a highlight.

    David offered congratulations on Meaghan’s promotion which is well deserved. Now we all look forward to the next season’s performances with 27 Romeo and Juliets. Our thanks for being with us and for reorganising the meeting so quickly because of yesterday’s stage call. We all look forward to following her career for many years, and some members have already booked for Dorset in September. Very many thanks and it was a pleasure to have her as our guest.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Meaghan Grace Hinkis and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2021