Sir Robert Helpmann OBE 1909-1986
Sir Robert Helpmann
He was born Robert Murray Helpman – only one ‘n’ – in Mount Gambier, South Australia, on 9 April 1909.
He had his first lessons from Nora Stewart in Adelaide, where he made his debut in 1922, dancing at the Theatre Royal in The Ugly Duckling.
His father arranged for him to join the visiting Anna Pavlova company. He studied with them and danced minor roles.
A knight to remember
‘An infusion of excitement, apprehension and nerves spread through the new company as we awaited the arrival of Sir Robert Helpmann,’ reminisced dancer Barry Kitcher who, in 1964, Helpmann chose to create the role of the Lyrebird in his ballet The Display. ‘His appearance was unmistakeable: a slim elegant figure in a cool safari suit, a deeply sun-tanned face with a shock of dyed blonde hair and a lei of gold chains around his neck. While we worked through our normal class he simply came straight in and sat himself down next to Peggy van Praagh. There were no formalities, no introductions. He was there to watch class. We heard constant whisperings between them while his large bulbous eyes circled the room, taking in all our movements. I felt he was an x-ray machine boring through my insides and not missing a thing. Then, before the class had even finished, he unceremoniously stood up and walked out. In that brief encounter he had sorted out which of us he wanted for The Display.’
When Sir Robert Helpmann died in Sydney on 28 September 1986 the curtain fell on a career so long, diverse and extraordinary that obituary writers hardly knew where to start. In his 77 years he had packed more activity, met more challenges and excelled in more fields than any of his contemporaries, in Australia or overseas.
What was he? A dancer? A choreographer? A director of ballets, plays and operas? A stage, film and television actor? Even a singer? He was all these and much, much more: a theatrical chameleon, capable of adroitly adapting his prodigious knowledge, talent and enthusiasm to everything he tackled. Robert Helpmann was unique.
Today most people identify him with ballet and it was in dance that he first made his mark. He was born Robert Murray Helpman – only one ‘n’ – in Mount Gambier, South Australia, on 9 April 1909. He had his first lessons from Nora Stewart in Adelaide, where he made his debut in 1922, dancing at the Theatre Royal in The Ugly Duckling. His sister, Sheila and his brother, Max, followed in his theatrical footsteps.
Young Bobby’s professional career began in 1927 when he was principal dancer in J.C. Williamson’s production of the operetta Frasquita at His Majesty’s in Sydney. That year his father arranged for him to join the visiting Anna Pavlova company. He studied with them and danced minor roles. He gained further experience in variety at the Tivoli and in musicals and plays for Williamson’s. He so impressed the visiting English actress Margaret Rawlings that she gave him a small role in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and asked him to create a short ballet as a curtain raiser for another play in her repertoire, Happy and Glorious. The result was Business-à-la-Russe, which Helpmann choreographed to a score he commissioned from an Adelaide friend, Tom King. Promising an introduction to Ninette de Valois at Sadler’s Wells, Rawlings persuaded Helpmann to venture to London. Sporting the extra ‘n’ that Pavlova suggested, Helpmann left Australia in 1933. He would be away for 22 years.
Photograph courtesy Australian Ballet
Mary Helpman: The Helpman Family Story, Rigby, 1967
Barry Kitcher: From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, Front Page, 2001
Elizabeth Salter: Helpmann – The Authorised Biography, Angus & Robertson, 1978