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Sir Robert Murray Helpmann (1909–1986)

by Christopher Sexton

This article was published:

Sir Robert Helpmann, by Eric Wadsworth, 1973

Sir Robert Helpmann, by Eric Wadsworth, 1973

National Library of Australia, 44035483

Sir Robert Murray Helpmann (1909-1986), ballet dancer, actor, producer, director and choreographer, was born on 9 April 1909 at Mount Gambier, South Australia, eldest of three children of James Murray Helpman, a Victorian-born stock and station agent, and his wife Mary, née Gardiner, born in South Australia. Benjamin Helpman was his great-grandfather. Robert was educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, but left school at 14. His mother—herself stage-struck from an early age—was to be a driving force in his career. Taught ballet by Nora Stewart, he first appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide, in 1922 as a solo dancer in The Ugly Duckling. As a student he toured Australia and New Zealand in 1926 with Anna Pavlova’s company. His professional career began in 1927 when he joined J. C. Williamson Ltd as the principal dancer in Frasquita for its Australasian tour.

For the next five years Helpman featured as the principal dancer in a range of J. C. Williamson productions. His break came in December 1931 when he was seen performing in a Christmas pantomime in Melbourne by the English actress Margaret Rawlings, who was in Australia to play the lead in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Impressed by this ‘most rare and imperative original talent’, Rawlings engaged him for the minor role of Septimus Barrett. The play toured Australia and New Zealand until late 1932, then Rawlings persuaded him to travel to London. She found him work at the Gate Theatre and, more significantly, introduced him to (Dame) Ninette de Valois, who employed him in 1933 as a member of the corps de ballet in her Vic-Wells Ballet. De Valois recorded her assessment of him in her logbook. On the credit side she found him ‘talented, enthusiastic, extremely intelligent, [with] great facility, witty, cute as a monkey, quick as a squirrel, a sense of theatre and his own possible achievements therein’. On the debit side he was ‘academically technically weak, lacking in concentration, too fond of a good time and too busy having it’.

Helpman was ambitious, flamboyant, and out to make an impression. Lilian Baylis, the owner-manager of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, remarked to de Valois, ‘I like the boy, dear, who puts too much brilliantine on his hair; do stop him, his head’s rather large anyway, and it makes one keep looking at him’. To this, de Valois replied, ‘Perhaps that is what he means you to do’. In 1934, at Rawlings’ suggestion, he added a second ‘n’ to his surname to give it a more exotic, European appeal. His theatre colleagues knew him more familiarly as ‘Bobby’.

Having formed what was to be a brief partnership with Vic-Wells’s prima ballerina (Dame) Alicia Markova, Helpmann was promoted in 1935 to principal male dancer, a position he retained with increasing authority until he resigned in 1950. In 1937 he created an enduring partnership with (Dame) Margot Fonteyn. Not a great classical virtuoso dancer, nor especially athletic, he had, however, a technique that, according to Leo Kersley, ‘allowed him to do what he wanted with sureness, precision and smoothness’. Moreover, he had enormous power of projection and dramatic presence, described by Rawlings as an ‘unrivalled quality of moving an audience’. De Valois wrote that there was also, at times, a ‘wild poetry about his dancing’. Helpmann’s innate theatricality enabled him to create important roles in the company’s repertoire, including the lead in de Valois’s The Haunted Ballroom (1934), The Prospect before Us (1940) and Don Quixote (1950), and the Red King in Checkmate (1937), a role created for him by de Valois. The company’s resident choreographer, (Sir) Frederick Ashton, also used Helpmann’s talents in his ballets, including Apparitions and Nocturne (both 1936), A Wedding Bouquet (1937), Dante Sonata (1940), The Wanderer (1941) and Don Juan and Cinderella (both 1948).

During World War II Helpmann toured with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet on behalf of the armed services and, through his humour and grit, emerged, according to Fonteyn, as ‘the person who more than any other kept the company going’. Back in London, and in the absence of Ashton, who had enlisted for war service, he turned to choreography. In 1942 he created three professional ballets for the company—Comus, Hamlet and The Birds—followed by two noteworthy later ones: Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and vAdam Zero (1946). Though each of these works received critical acclaim in varying degrees, Helpmann was never a choreographer in the purist tradition. His choreographic inventions were essentially narrative, often based on some literary or psychological theme, and invariably strongly dramatic.

In the 1930s, in parallel with his dancing career, Helpmann had performed small parts in the dramatic theatre, most notably in 1937 when he played Oberon to Vivien Leigh’s Titania in (Sir) Tyrone Guthrie’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the 1940s he appeared in Hamlet with the Old Vic company (1944) and, under the direction of Michael Benthall, took the role of Flamineo in John Webster’s The White Devil (1947), next to Margaret Rawlings. Again under Benthall’s direction he featured at the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival in 1948, in the name roles of Hamlet and King John, and as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Sir John Gielgud recalled in 1987 that, in moving into straight acting, Helpmann ‘took endless pains with his diction and phrasing’; his miming was always brilliant, but one fellow actor felt ‘his handling of the text, however carefully studied, did not completely synchronise with his pictorial handling of his performances’.

Having previously appeared in the films One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941) and (Sir) Laurence (Lord) Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Helpmann again turned to the screen in 1948, playing the principal dancer role of Ivan Boleslawsky in the first British ballet film The Red Shoes, for which he was also choreographer. Later that year, he resumed dancing with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, touring with the company to the United States of America in 1949 and again in November 1950; he gave his final performance as a regular company member in San Francisco. Earlier that year he had produced his first opera, Madama Butterfly, at Covent Garden.

In the 1950s Helpmann concentrated increasingly on directing for the dramatic stage and opera. His output at the Old Vic was prolific, and included T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1953), and a succession of Shakespearean plays: The Tempest (1954), As You Like It (1955), Romeo and Juliet (1956) and Antony and Cleopatra (1957). At the same time he maintained a demanding acting schedule: roles included the Egyptian doctor (opposite Katharine Hepburn) in G. B. Shaw’s The Millionairess (1952), the Devil in Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (1954), Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1954) and, for the 1956-57 season at the Old Vic, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Saturninus in Titus Andronicus, Dr Pinch in The Comedy of Errors and Richard, duke of Gloucester, in Richard III.

After an absence of twenty-two years Helpmann returned to Australia in 1955 to lead, with Katharine Hepburn, a Shakespearean company sent out by the Old Vic company with a repertoire of three plays. He performed the roles of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Angelo in Measure for Measure. Back in Australia three years later, he toured in (Sir) Noël Coward’s Nude with Violin, and also danced with his old ballet company (renamed The Royal Ballet) in The Rake’s Progress, Coppélia, Façade and Hamlet. In 1962 he performed again for Australian audiences in another Old Vic company, this time headed by Vivien Leigh, and played the role of Prince Tuan in the film 55 Days at Peking.

In 1963 Helpmann choreographed his sixth work for The Royal Ballet, the short-lived and critically damned Elektra, and produced a new version of Swan Lake. He choreographed and produced The Display (1964) for the fledgling Australian Ballet. In 1965 he was appointed co-artistic director of the company, with (Dame) Peggy van Praagh. He used the company as a vehicle for his choreography—Yugen (1965) and an expanded version of Elektra (1966), followed in 1968 by Sun Music, which received mixed reactions from Australian critics and the public. In 1970, in collaboration with Rudolf Nureyev, he staged and danced in Don Quixote. He mounted a popular production of The Merry Widow (1975). That year he was appointed sole artistic director of the Australian Ballet but in 1976 was ousted by the board. He had served in 1968 as consultant and in 1970 as artistic director for the Adelaide Festival of Arts.

Helpmann’s legacy to Australian ballet was significant. His co-artistic directorship with van Praagh was, for the most part, productive. They complemented each other with their different personalities and skills: she the pedagogue, teacher and administrator; he the restless ‘jet-setting’ star who spent six months of the year overseas and attracted international names to perform with the company.

In his later years Helpmann steadfastly refused to retire. He made various guest appearances in ballets in Australia and abroad, and continued to act and produce. In 1978 he directed Stars of World Ballet, a collection of international solo dancers, which toured the major Australian capital cities. For the Australian Opera he directed Handel’s Alcina in 1981 and the same opera and Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet in the 1982-83 season. He returned to acting during the Sydney Theatre Company’s 1983 season to portray Lord Alfred Douglas in Justin Fleming’s play The Cobra. His last appearance on stage, poignantly, was in July 1986 as the Red King in the Australian Ballet’s production of Checkmate.

Helpmann was the complete man of the theatre. Some thought he spread his talents too thinly, denying him mastery over any one area. Opinions vary: Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen’s Musick, argued that ‘he never became a Gielgud, Olivier or Redgrave, or an Ashton, Balanchine or Petit because he was the most pluralistic of the lot’; Moira Shearer thought that ‘he wasn’t a great dancer—he wasn’t a great actor—but he was most certainly a great mime, the perfect bridge between the two’. He had a wicked wit, its impact aided by his bulbous eyes and a sometimes Mephistophelean expression; he could be abrasive and did not allow the warmth below the surface to show often. The actor John McCallum observed that he ‘inspired affection from those who knew him well, but gave little back. He inspired animosity in many people, and delighted in giving it back’. Seeing people and things, including himself, with piercing accuracy, he was amusing and irreverent, and no one was spared: when asked, ‘Does your mother resemble you?’, he replied, ‘She looks like me as Dr Coppelius’.

Despite his showmanship, Helpmann was a private man. The great love of his life, with whom he shared a flat in London, was Michael Benthall (d.1974). The only family he knew were his younger siblings Max and Sheila, both actors. Many women, including Rawlings, Hepburn, Leigh, and Claire Bloom, who remembered his ‘extraordinary magnetism and magic, on and off stage’, adored him. Although he disdained ostentation and despised sycophancy, he had a strong streak of vanity and a sense of his own worth. In 1953 he received a Queen Elizabeth II coronation award; in 1954 he was appointed to the Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden) and in 1957 made a knight of the cedar (Lebanon). Appointed CBE in 1964 and knighted in 1968, he was named Australian of the Year for 1965.

Sir Robert died on 28 September 1986 in Sydney and was cremated after a state funeral in St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral. On 7 October Prime Minister R. J. Hawke moved a condolence motion in the House of Representatives—a rare tribute for a non-politician. On 25 November a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, London. His portrait by Judy Cassab hangs in the Sydney Opera House. The Helpmann awards, recognising artistic achievement and excellence in the performing arts in Australia, were established by the Australian Entertainment Industry Association in 2001.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Brahms, Robert Helpmann: Choreographer (1943)
  • G. Anthony, Robert Helpmann (1946)
  • K. S. Walker, Robert Helpmann (1957)
  • N. de Valois, Come Dance with Me (1957)
  • M. Helpman, The Helpman Family Story, 1796-1964 (1967)
  • M. Fonteyn, Margot Fonteyn (1975)
  • E. Salter, Helpmann (1978)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 7 Oct 1986, p 1515
  • Equity (Actors’ and Announcers’ Equity Association), Dec 1986, p 27
  • Robert Helpmann papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christopher Sexton, 'Helpmann, Sir Robert Murray (1909–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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