Sir Robert Helpmann CBE 1909-1986

Robert Helpmann

Sir Robert Helpmann

He returned to the Royal Ballet (formerly Sadler’s Wells) for its first Australian tour in 1956, dancing in Coppélia, Façade, The Rake’s Progress and his own ballet, Hamlet.

Helpmann was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1964.

He was involved with Michael Edgley in the sensational 1978 ‘Stars of World Ballet’ company, notable especially as Margot Fonteyn’s eighth and final tour of Australia.

 

Helpmann enjoyed and exploited his notoriety. In 1963 he made headlines – and the airwaves
– with a bizarre disc of surfing songs which he recorded in a studio in Honolulu on his way to Australia. It is now a coveted collectors’ item. His flamboyance challenged the stultifying conservatism of 1960s Australia. On one celebrated occasion, with eyebrows plucked and fingernails painted red, and sporting Oxford bags, pink shirt and purple tie, he strolled with a friend on Bondi Beach. Before long they were being trailed by a large, silent crowd, ‘like mourners behind a cortege’. Eventually some macho lifesavers picked him up, carried him to the surf, and unceremoniously dumped him in. More headlines!

Helpmann had not abandoned ballet. He returned to the Royal Ballet (formerly Sadler’s Wells) for its first Australian tour in 1956, dancing in Coppélia, Façade, The Rake’s Progress and his own ballet, Hamlet. For the Australian Ballet he created The Display in 1964, followed by Yugen and Sun Music. From 1965 until 1976 Helpmann was artistic director of the Australian Ballet, working in association with Dame Peggy van Praagh for the first nine years of his tenure. He directed the company’s tours to Europe, South America and Canada (for Expo 67) and South-East Asia.

With the Australian Ballet he danced as Doctor Coppélius in Coppélia, as an Ugly Sister in Cinderella and in the title role in the stage and film versions of Rudolf Nureyev’s landmark ballet interpretation of Don Quixote. Helpmann also appeared with the Australian Ballet as Sergeant Pepper in Gillian Lynne’s original television ballet The Fool on the Hill, using music by the Beatles.

Helpmann was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1964. In 1965 he was named Australian of the Year. A knighthood ‘for distinguished contribution to ballet and choreography’ followed in 1968. He directed the 1970 Adelaide Festival of Arts.

In 1975 Helpmann acquired the rights to transform The Merry Widow into a ballet: years before he had danced in a revival of Franz Lehár’s operetta in which Gladys Moncrieff had starred. One of the Australian Ballet’s greatest successes, The Merry Widow remains a favourite in the repertoire.

Helpmann continued to make guest appearances with the world’s major dance companies. He was involved with Michael Edgley in the sensational 1978 ‘Stars of World Ballet’ company, notable especially as Margot Fonteyn’s eighth and final tour of Australia.

In 1977 Helpmann played the Professor in the Australian film The Mango Tree. He was on screen again in the macabre Patrick in 1978. That same year he directed a touring version of the play Dracula. Back in Britain he was a delightfully wicked Cardinal Pirelli in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sandy Wilson’s quirky musical Valmouth. He also toured the United States in Colette with Diana Rigg.

Media Gallery

Photograph courtesy Australian Ballet

Biographical references

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