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Helpmann, Sir Robert (1909-1986)  
 
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De Valois (whose original name was the less euphonious Edris Stannus) was also passionately dedicated to developing British talent. Her two star dancers for the fledgling Vic-Wells Ballet at the time were Alicia Markova (original name: Alice Marks) and Anton Dolin (original name: Patrick Healy Kay) with Frederick Ashton on tap as the company choreographer; her corps de ballet, which Helpmann joined, would produce additional lead dancers as her school brought them up to standard.

Timing continued to work for Helpmann. When Anton Dolin became unavailable for a 1933 performance of Job (choreography by de Valois; music by Vaughan Williams), de Valois cast Helpmann in the showy role of Satan. With his sure instinct for seizing a theatrical opportunity, he was a sensation, and de Valois began to groom him for more prominent roles.

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His first starring role was in The Haunted Ballroom (1934, choreography by de Valois; music by Geoffrey Toye), and soon he was selected to partner the company's prima ballerina Markova.

Since Helpmann put Markova in the same class as Pavlova, his dedication to supporting her artistry was total. His partnering was also remarkably effective considering his limited training compared to her previous partner, Dolin.

Prominent dance critic Arnold Haskell commented, "[Helpmann] is the only man I know who was an indifferent dancer from a purely classical point of view, but who could act the role of a danseur noble so perfectly that he carried conviction from the moment he appeared on stage."

De Valois had found a new premier male dancer for the company. It was also about this same time in 1934 that Helpmann added the extra "n" to his surname to infuse its Scots stolidity with a more Continental flair. Success followed success and Helpmann was soon not only a leading dancer in the company but also an audience favorite.

By the time Markova left the company in 1935, Helpmann was the logical choice to partner de Valois's new discovery, one Peggy Hookham. Quickly renamed Margot Fonteyn, the new ballerina soon triumphed in such classics as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty (both with choreography by Petipa, staging by Sergeyev, and music by Tchaikovsky).

The partnership of de Valois, Ashton, Fonteyn, and Helpmann formed the solid core of the Vic-Wells Ballet. The stability of that partnership owed no small debt to the remarkable ability that Helpmann and Ashton showed in smoothing over touchy situations when de Valois, a stern administrator, cast a periodic chill that might have driven many key people away. Their wit and humor helped defuse situations that could have resulted in an implosion of artistic egos, and they helped the company through its incarnations as the Vic-Wells Ballet, the Sadler's Wells Ballet, and, eventually, today's Royal Ballet with its acclaimed repertoire, performance style, and artistry.

Actor, Lover, Choreographer

While Helpmann dedicated the majority of his time and energy to dancing, he also wanted to continue acting. In 1937, he approached Lilian Baylis (the director and financial backer of both the Old Vic Theatre and the Vic-Wells Ballet) to request an audition for the role of Oberon in Tyrone Guthrie's upcoming production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Helpmann landed the role and played opposite Vivien Leigh in the role of Titania to great acclaim.

That success ensured that he was invited to undertake other dramatic roles. His flair for playing to the press and keeping his name before the public also brought him many other invitations, among them one to dance at Oxford University, where he met a 19-year-old undergraduate named Michael Benthall.

Helpmann noted at the time that Benthall had matinee idol looks and understood what he was talking about: this was the start of something big, a professional and personal partnership that would endure for thirty-six years until Benthall's death in 1974. Although their relationship was conducted in accordance with the rules of decorum and discretion of the time, they lived together and were recognized as a couple in their wide social circle.

The carefree ride of performances here, there, and everywhere came to a close with World War II. Many of the Sadler's Wells dancers were inducted into the army, as was Ashton. Helpmann, an Australian citizen, was not drafted and the Vic-Wells Ballet show went on, though on a reduced scale.

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