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Sir Robert Helpmann

Portrait of Robert Helpmann in London circa 1945
Born 9 April 1909(1909-04-09)
Mount Gambier, South Australia, Australia
Died 28 September 1986 (aged 77)
Sydney, Australia

Sir Robert Helpmann CBE (9 April 1909 – 28 September 1986) was an Australian dancer, actor, director and choreographer.

The Helpmann Academy in South Australia, a partnership of the major visual and performing arts education and training institutions in South Australia offering award courses for people seeking professional careers in the arts, was named in his honour. The Helpmann Awards recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in Australia's live performing arts sectors.


Early years

He was born Robert Murray Helpman (spelt with one "n") in Mount Gambier, South Australia and also boarded at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide. From childhood, Helpman had a strong desire to be a dancer. This was an unusual ambition in provincial Australia of the 1920s. In a 1974 interview he recalled that he was taught the moves and dances of a girl because his dance teacher had no prior experience teaching boys.

In the Margot Fonteyn biography, he is described as being dark haired, pale, and having large dark eyes. Helpman had a younger sister Sheila Helpman, and a younger brother Max, or Maxwell Helpman, and he welcomed them both into his theatrical world, both of them becoming part of it like audience members and then becoming involved into his style of work as actors themselves.

The young Helpman enjoyed dressing up in his mother's clothing, and disliked his days at school. The pursuit of acting and performance took priority for him, rather than conventional education. His parents encouraged their son, who saw that Helpman had such a confidence and drive in him to do so.


Early career

In 1926 he joined the touring dance company of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The introduction came via his father, who was on a business trip to Melbourne, where he met Pavlova who was dancing there. Pavlova was a devotee of numerology, and it was at her suggestion that he changed his surname from Helpman to Helpmann, to avoid his name Robert Helpman having 13 letters. [1]

Cinderella ballet (cover of VHS version)

In 1927 Helpmann first appeared professionally, in Sydney, but opportunities to dance at any serious level in Australia were limited. In 1933 he went to London and joined the Vic-Wells Ballet (which later became Sadler's Wells) and later the Royal Ballet. He was principal dancer from 1933 to 1950. While he was not among the ranks of the great male dancers, he was certainly highly accomplished. Here he formed his great professional partnership with Margot Fonteyn. Together they created many roles in ballets choreographed by Frederick Ashton, including a comical pantomime-style ballet of Cinderella with Ashton and Helpmann creating the roles of the ugly stepsisters for the ballet.

The highpoint of Helpmann's career as a dancer was the Royal Ballet's tour of the United States in 1949, with Fonteyn and Helpmann dancing the leading roles in The Sleeping Beauty. The production caused a sensation, which made the names of both the Royal Ballet and its two principals; public and press alike referred to them affectionately as Bobby and Margot. Although Helpmann was past his best as a dancer, the tour opened doors for him in the United States as an actor and director.

Later career

In the 1940s, as he passed his peak as a dancer, Helpmann turned to production and to acting. He produced his own ballets — Comus (1942), Hamlet (1942), Miracle in the Gorbals (1946), Caravan (1946), Adam Zero (1946) and The White Devil (1947). He performed roles from Shakespeare at the Canadian Stratford Shakespeare Festival and at the Old Vic theatre company in London, playing the title role in Hamlet two years after having danced the same part. He also appeared in many films, including the two Powell and Pressburger ballet films The Red Shoes (1948), for which he choreographed the opening sequence, and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In 1942 he played the Dutch Quisling in the Powell/Pressburger film One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and later played the Chinese Prince Tuan in 55 Days at Peking (1963). He co-directed with Rudolf Nureyev and played the title role in the ballet-film Don Quixote (1973) which was produced in Melbourne. One of his most recognized screen roles was that of the sinister Child Catcher in the family classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), his performance in the film rating in Empire magazine as among the 100 most frightening ever filmed. Another family film he starred in was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), in which he portrayed the Mad Hatter.

The Australian Ballet

In 1965 Helpmann returned to Australia to become co-director of the Australian Ballet. Since he was gay and flamboyant, his arrival in what was at that time a very conservative country caused some consternation. Australians were proud of his international fame, but not sure what to make of him personally. He did not endear himself with the comment: "I don't despair about the cultural scene in Australia because there isn't one here to despair about."

His most significant contribution to the development of theatre in Australia was his time with the Australian Ballet. Here he joined Peggy van Praagh at the helm of the fledgling company, as her co-director until 1974 and sole director until 1976. He produced ballets including Sun Music, Elektra and The Merry Widow. This was not his first encounter with The Merry Widow - he had directed a production of the operetta in His Majesty's Theatre in London in 1944, with Madge Elliott as "Anna" and Cyril Ritchard as "Danilo". In the 1930s he had also danced in a production with Gladys Moncrieff as "Anna".

The avant-garde nature and sexual overtones of much of his work unsettled many Australians. His most controversial work was The Display (1964), with music by Malcolm Williamson. Helpmann claimed that this was the "first one hundred per cent Australian ballet to have been choreographed", however it was predated by several works and the true first all-Australian ballet was Edouard Borovansky's Terra Australis which premiered in Melbourne on 25 May 1946.[2] The Display used the courtship dance of the lyrebird as a metaphor for Australian male attitudes. Helpmann dedicated the ballet to his friend American actress Katharine Hepburn, who wanted to see a male lyrebird dancing during her visit to Australia in 1955. The novelist Patrick White wrote the scenario, but Helpmann disliked it intensely. It was rejected, causing a furious row between these two extremely opinionated artists. Both the subject matter and the presentation of the ballet were well in advance of Australian tastes at the time.

The Australian Opera and later work

In 1981 Helpmann worked with the Australian Opera, directing Alcina by Handel, a production later re-staged with Joan Sutherland in the title role. In 1983 he celebrated his sixtieth year in theatre with involvement in productions in the three main auditoriums of the Sydney Opera House: in the Concert Hall he directed Anson Austin and Glenys Fowles in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette for the Australian Opera; in the Opera Theatre he re-choreographed The Display for the Australian Ballet.

In the Drama Theatre he starred for the Sydney Theatre Company in the world premiere of Justin Fleming's play The Cobra. Helpmann's portrayal of the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas, reflecting bitterly on his notorious youthful relationship with Oscar Wilde, was unforgettable. He also played the man servant in the stageplay Stardust, with Googie Withers and John McCallum.

Sir Robert directed the London production of the stage musical Camelot, with designs by John Truscott.

He also did work on a short family cartoon film, Don Quixote of La Mancha, where he provided the voice of the main character Don Quixote.


According to the novel based upon the life of Margot Fonteyn, Helpmann is characterized as being a very hard man, but also a very kind one. Fonteyn said herself that out of all her partners, Helpmann was her favourite. He was also extremely confident and always pushed Fonteyn to her highest potential. The novel also says that Helpmann would stand up to anyone, and that he could look into the face of the devil himself and laugh.

Personal life

In 1938, Helpmann met a young Oxford undergraduate while fulfilling an invitation to dance at the university. Immediately drawn to the handsome and intelligent Michael Benthall, the pair formed a relationship that was to last for 36 years until Benthall's death in 1974. The couple lived and often worked together quite openly for the time. Although devastated by the loss of his longtime companion and collaborator, "Sir Bobby" continued to act, direct and produce with his legendary theatrical flair until his death.[1]


Sir Robert Helpmann died in Sydney in 1986. His obituaries in the Australian media were suitably laudatory, but also reserved. The country paid him the highest final recognition it could by honouring him with a state funeral in Sydney, the eulogy calling him "a genius, an outstanding communicator of unique inspiration and insight. He asserted his rights to pursue a path that improved the quality of life of the nation, and defeated the common herd of detractors."

An obituary in The Times in London, characterised his appearance as "strange, haunting and rather frightening", and portrayed him as "a homosexual of the proselytizing kind" whose impact upon a company was "dangerous as well as stimulating", creating fresh headlines in Australia.


In 1964 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).[3] In 1965 he was named "Australian of the Year", and in 1968 he was appointed a Knight Bachelor.[4]

By the 1970s, Australia had grown used to Helpmann's flamboyant persona. His appointment as Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts from 1970 to 1976 was well-received. People of Melbourne honoured him as their 1974 King of Moomba.[5]

Posthumous recognition

The Helpmann Academy in South Australia was named in his honour; it is a partnership of the major visual and performing arts education and training institutions in South Australia offering award courses for people seeking professional careers in the arts. The Helpmann Awards were instituted 2001, and recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in Australia's live performing arts sectors.

Lyrebird (Tales of Helpmann), a play about the life and career of Helpmann, has been performed in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. The play premiered in the United States in 2009.

Further reading

  • Kathrine Sorley Walker, Robert Helpmann, An Illustrated study of his work, 1957
  • Elizabeth Salter, Helpmann : The Authorised Biography of Sir Robert Helpmann, 1978
  • Frank Van Straten, OAM, "Helpmann: A Knight To Remember"
  • Anna Bemrose,"A Servant of Art: Helpmann in Australia", PHD Thesis, 2003, University of Queensland.
  • Tyler Coppin, "Lyrebird: Tales of Helpmann", A play
  • Mary Helpmann, "The Helpmann Family Story 1796-1964", 1967
  • Caryl Brahams, "Robert Helpmann (Choreographer)", 1943
  • Gordon Anthony, "Studies of Robert Helpmann", 1946


  1. ^ a b Mentioned in Robert Helpmann: An illustrated study of his work by Kathrine Sorley Walker
  2. ^ Potter, Michelle (October 2003). Terra Australis. XIII. National Library of Australia News. Retrieved 2008-07-22.  
  3. ^ It's an Honour: CBE
  4. ^ It's an Honour: Knight Bachelor
  5. ^ Craig Bellamy, Gordon Chisholm, Hilary Eriksen (17 Feb 2006) Moomba: A festival for the people.: PDF pp 17-22

External links

Preceded by
Dawn Fraser
Australian of the Year Award
Succeeded by
Jack Brabham
Cultural offices
Preceded by
Advisory Board
Director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts
Succeeded by
Louis van Eyssen

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