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Helpmann, Sir Robert (1909-1986)  
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In Ashton's absence, de Valois invited Helpmann to choreograph. With the suggestions and help of Benthall, he created Comus (1942, based on a masque by John Milton with music by Henry Purcell), a surrealistic 18-minute ballet version of Hamlet (1942, music by Tchaikovsky), and other pieces that filled out programs with the highly theatrical narrative ballets that de Valois favored.

That Helpmann stepped up as a choreographer while Ashton was off at war did not, however, endear him to Ashton. In fact, upon Ashton's return their previously friendly relationship went into a tailspin of sniping, petty jealousy, and destructive competition.

The only good thing to came of their rivalry was Ashton's creation of the roles of the Two Ugly Sisters in his 1948 Cinderella (music by Prokofiev). The performances by Ashton and Helpmann, in roles inspired by their own squabbles, antics, and attitudes, were in the great "dame" tradition of English pantomime and music hall revues and were fervently embraced by audiences and critics: personal conflict and chaos had been transmuted into art.

The Wider World of Film and Theater

The post-World War II period brought many changes: Helpmann focused on theater work more than dancing; the young Michael Somes moved up to partner Fonteyn; and Michael Benthall (working as a director and producer, first at Stratford-upon-Avon from 1947 to 1951, and then as director of the Old Vic from 1953 to1962) cast Helpmann in many productions.

As the most prominent actor-dancer and leading choreographer in England, Helpmann was approached by film director Michael Powell for a little project entitled The Red Shoes (1948). At the outset, this film about backstage intrigue in a ballet company might have seemed to be just another of the many projects Helpmann leaped into in his mad rush from ballet to theater to bit parts in films (in 1944, he played Bishop of Ely in Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning Henry V, for example).

But The Red Shoes became one of the most influential films for stimulating post-war interest in ballet around the world. It led to a boom in dance classes, fueled aspirations for talented youngsters, and developed a whole new dance audience.

Helpmann's dual role in the film as both a dancer/actor and choreographer (along with co-star Léonide Massine) expanded his audience beyond his wildest dreams. Despite all his other remarkable achievements in dance and theater, he remains best known to mainstream audiences through this one film.

Many years after the 1948 premiere, an intrepid reporter asked Helpmann if the portrait in The Red Shoes of dancers' lives was an over-the-top exaggeration. He replied, "Oh, no, dear boy, it was quite understated."

Helpmann and the press were an ideal match, and they used each other to mutual advantage over the years. His snappy sound bites gave them great copy; and their eagerness to interview him kept him in the public eye. To another scribe who was canny enough to ask if he was considering writing an autobiography, for example, Helpmann jauntily replied, "No. Theatrical people are just a series of first nights."

In 1950, Helpmann retired from the Sadler's Wells Ballet to concentrate exclusively on theater work, appearing in productions of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1951) and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1951), among others.

After Benthall became involved in stage projects with the redoubtable Katharine Hepburn, Helpmann starred with her in George Bernard Shaw's The Millionairess in London and New York (1952). Helpmann, Hepburn, and Benthall continued their happy collaboration on a 1955 Australian tour with productions of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure.

Australian Ballet

When Helpmann's friend Peggy van Praagh, the ballet mistress of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, was recommended by Ninette de Valois to direct the new Australian Ballet in 1962, Helpmann joined in as artistic advisor and later served as co-director with van Praagh from 1965 to1974.

Helpmann and van Praagh planned the artistic growth of the company along the lines that de Valois had championed at the Vic-Wells and Sadler's Wells Ballets: developing local dancing talent, building audiences, and creating new audience-pleasing work for the company.

One of the coups that Helpmann pulled off at the Australian Ballet was recruiting his friend Rudolf Nureyev as a guest artist. Nureyev brought his staging of Don Quixote (choreography by Nureyev after Petipa; music by Ludwig Minkus) to Sydney in 1970. In this production, Nureyev danced the role of Basilo and Helpmann took on the mime role of Don Quixote. The success of the production led to its 1973 filming with Helpmann and Nureyev not only re-creating their roles but also co-directing.

Helpmann staged The Merry Widow (1975, choreography by Ronald Hynd; music by Franz Lehar, arranged by Lanchbery) as his last major production for the Australian Ballet before his exit as artistic director. It became one of the most popular and enduring works in the company's repertoire.

Life after Benthall

Helpmann was knighted in 1968 and henceforth requested that his friends call him Sir Bobby. He enjoyed his honors with characteristic delight and deviltry. He said, "I simply love the fact that my enemies have to call me Sir!"

Although in 1974 he was devastated by the untimely death of Michael Benthall, his longtime companion and collaborator on so many projects, Helpmann displayed remarkable energy in his golden years.

Well into his eighth decade, he was active as director, actor, and producer. The rounds seemed never to stop, and he exhibited his legendary theatrical flair right up to the end.

He recreated the role of the Red King in de Valois's Checkmate (1937, music by Arthur Bliss) for the 1986 Australian Ballet season shortly before he died in Sydney of a chronic respiratory illness on September 28, 1986. He was 77.

John McFarland

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Basler, Barbara. "Sir Robert Helpmann Is Dead: A Dancer, Actor and Director." The New York Times (September 29, 1986): B14.

Croce, Arlene. Afterimages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

"Helpmann, Sir Robert Murray." The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found, eds. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1996. 218.

Kavanagh, Julie. Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

Salter, Elizabeth. Helpmann: The Authorized Biography. Brighton, England: Angus & Robertson, 1978.


    Citation Information
    Author: McFarland, John  
    Entry Title: Helpmann, Sir Robert  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated March 9, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  


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