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Helpmann, Sir Robert (1909-1986)  
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Present at the creation of premier ballet companies in both Great Britain and Australia, Sir Robert Helpmann was a leading dancer, choreographer, and artistic director from the 1930s to the 1980s. A remarkably versatile actor, he also appeared regularly on stage and in films.

Productive in many arenas of the theatrical arts, Helpmann is probably best remembered among the general public for his role in The Red Shoes (1948), the classic film that tells us, according to its director Michael Powell, to go out and die for art.

Early Life

Robert Helpmann was born on April 9, 1909 in the small South Australia town of Mount Gambier. First child of a father whose forebears controlled vast territories for raising sheep and a mother whose acting ambitions had been thwarted by her family's objection to having a daughter on stage, Helpmann both challenged and inspired his parents.

He demonstrated not only a desire to be in the spotlight from an early age but also the ability to keep it on him and to dominate a room. When his younger brother and sister arrived on the scene, he did not rebel like most first-born children. Rather, he welcomed them into his theatrical fantasy, first as captive audience members and later as stagehands and fellow performers.

Helpmann's mother recognized and encouraged his talents as an actor, mimic, and dancer by enrolling him in classes as soon as they moved to Adelaide. His father, on the other hand, resisted the idea that any son of his was headed toward a life in dancing slippers.

Early Training in Australia

However, when it was clear that Helpmann had so much energy, drive, and conviction that nothing would prevent him from dancing, it was his father who raised the professional bar. He told the 14-year-old, "If you're going to be a dancer, you're going to be a bloody good one. There's a girl in Melbourne with her own company and she's agreed to take you on."

That "girl" was none other than the world-famous ballerina Anna Pavlova, formerly of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Although Pavlova never accepted new students that she had not auditioned, somehow Helpmann's father had persuaded her to accept his boy sight unseen.

The energetic but provincial teenager soon found himself not only studying with Pavlova's company but also studying her performances night after night. Helpmann later remarked, "I saw a great personality--a great dancer who could act as well as dance. She represented everything I wanted to be. She was the most important single influence on my life." This proved to be only the first of Helpmann's many fortuitous career alliances.

After Pavlova's departure from Melbourne, Helpmann went on to become a major performer on the stages and music halls of Australia. Hard work and his knack for mimicry landed him assignments; and, his outrageous sense of humor and talent for friendship earned him the loyalty of influential colleagues.

London Connections and Ballet Stardom

His close working relationship with British actress Margaret Rawlings, for example, led to an invitation to return to England with her theater troupe. If Pavlova conferred the gifts of training, aspiration, and cachet on him, Rawlings, who was supremely well-connected, provided him with an all-important entrée to London's theatrical world.

When Helpmann arrived in London in 1933, Rawlings sent off a letter of introduction to her friend Ninette de Valois, who was starting her own dance troupe. That introduction with Rawlings's high praise was enough for the normally imperious de Valois. There was no audition, and she acted as if Helpmann had already joined her new Vic-Wells Ballet company. Helpmann would later say that de Valois needed male dancers and any man standing upright on two legs would probably have been welcomed.

De Valois had, in fact, cast her cold eye over Helpmann's strengths and weaknesses and saw potential. If he fell short in technical aspects of his ballet training, she could see that his theatrical savvy could cover that shortcoming until he learned better. Taking in his look and attitude, she diplomatically did not mention his flamboyant wardrobe choices for street wear. She did famously remark, "I could do something with that face."

Superficial aspects aside, Helpmann and de Valois shared much in common: a debut in commercial theater, knowledge of revues and music halls, exposure to the Diaghilev tradition, and a dedication to creating narrative ballet.

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Sir Robert Helpmann (ca 1945).
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