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Sir Robert Helpmann CBE (9 April 1909 – 28 September 1986) was an Australian dancer, actor, theatre director and choreographer.

Robert Helpmann
Robert Helpmann.jpg
Portrait of Robert Helpmann in London circa 1945
Born(1909-04-09)9 April 1909
Died28 September 1986(1986-09-28) (aged 77)
OccupationBallet dancer, actor, theatre director, choreographer
Years active1936–1986
Partner(s)Michael Benthall (1938–1974, his death)


Early yearsEdit

He was born Robert Murray Helpman (specifically spelt with one "n") in Mount Gambier, South Australia, and was known as "Bobby" by those close to him. Helpmann was educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, but left school at 14 to focus entirely on ballet. From childhood, Helpmann had a strong desire to be a dancer. This was an unusual ambition in provincial Australia of the 1920s. In a 1974 interview, Helpmann recalled that he was taught the moves and dances of a girl because his dance teacher had no prior experience teaching boys.[dubious ][citation needed]

In the Margot Fonteyn biography, Helpmann is described as being dark-haired, pale and having large dark eyes. He had a younger sister Sheila Mary Helpman, and a younger brother Max, or Maxwell Gardiner Helpman, and he welcomed them both into his theatrical world, both of them becoming part of it like audience members and then becoming involved into his style of work as actors themselves.


Early careerEdit

In 1926 he joined the touring dance company of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The introduction came via his father, who was on a business trip to Melbourne, where he met Pavlova who was dancing there. One of the many versions of the cause for his decision to change his surname from Helpman to Helpmann, was that Pavlova, a devotee of numerology, suggested that he should change his surname to avoid his name Robert Helpman having 13 letters.[1]

Following the wartime return of the Sadler's Wells Ballet from the newly occupied Netherlands, Helpmann took a central role in Ninette de Valois' new ballet of 1940, The Prospect Before Us.[2]

The highpoint of Helpmann's career as a dancer was the Sadler's Wells Ballet tour of the United States in 1949, with Fonteyn and Helpmann dancing the leading roles in The Sleeping Beauty. The production caused a sensation, which made the names of both the Royal Ballet and its two principals; public and press alike referred to them affectionately as Bobby and Margot. Although Helpmann was past his best as a dancer, the tour opened doors for him in the United States as an actor and director.

Later careerEdit

In the 1940s, Helpmann turned to production and to acting. He produced his own ballets — Comus (1942), Hamlet (1942), The Birds (1942), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), Caravan (1946), Adam Zero (1946) and Elektra (1963). He performed roles from Shakespeare at the Canadian Stratford Shakespeare Festival and at the Old Vic theatre company in London, playing the title role in Hamlet two years after having danced the same part.

Helpmann also appeared in many films, including the two Powell and Pressburger ballet films The Red Shoes (1948), for which he was the choreographer, and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In 1942 he played the Dutch Quisling in the Powell/Pressburger film One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and later played the Chinese Prince Tuan in 55 Days at Peking (1963).

After his return to Australia as co-director of The Australian Ballet, he continued to appear in films. Notable productions included one of his most recognized screen roles, the evil and sinister Child Catcher in the family classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). His performance in the film was later rated by Empire magazine as among the 100 most frightening ever filmed. Another family film he starred in was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), in which he portrayed the Mad Hatter. And for The Australian Ballet he co-directed with Rudolf Nureyev the ballet-film Don Quixote (1973), in which he also played the title role. He also starred in the cult 1978 horror film Patrick, in which he broke his back in a scene where he lifted the title character.

In 1982 Helpman appeared in the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of the musical Valmouth by Sandy Wilson as Cardinal Pirelli.

Australian BalletEdit

In 1965 Helpmann returned to Australia to become co-director of the Australian Ballet, bringing with him an international theatrical reputation and connections with dancers, choreographers and companies across the world. Since he was gay and flamboyant, his arrival in what was at that time a very conservative country caused some consternation.[citation needed] Australians were proud of his international fame, but not sure what to make of him personally. He did not endear himself with the comment: "I don't despair about the cultural scene in Australia because there isn't one here to despair about."[citation needed]

His most significant contribution to the development of dance in Australia was his time with the Australian Ballet, where he created a series of important choreographic works and led the company on a number of international tours. Helpmann joined Dame Peggy van Praagh at the helm of the fledgling company, as her co-director until 1974 and sole director until 1976. He choreographed ballets including Yugen (1965), Elektra (1967, revised from the original version created for the Royal Ballet in 1963), Sun Music (1968), Perisynthyon (1974) and produced and directed The Merry Widow (1975). This was not his first encounter with The Merry Widow – he had directed a production of the operetta in His Majesty's Theatre in London in 1944, with Madge Elliott as "Anna" and Cyril Ritchard as "Danilo". In the 1930s he had also danced in a production with Gladys Moncrieff as "Anna".

The avant-garde nature and sexual overtones of much of his work unsettled many Australians.[citation needed] His most controversial work was The Display (1964), with music by Malcolm Williamson. Helpmann claimed that this was the "first one hundred per cent Australian ballet to have been choreographed", although it was predated by several works and the true first all-Australian ballet was Edouard Borovansky's Terra Australis which premiered in Melbourne on 25 May 1946.[3] The Display used the courtship dance of the lyrebird as a metaphor for Australian male attitudes.[citation needed] Helpmann dedicated the ballet to his friend American actress Katharine Hepburn, who wanted to see a male lyrebird dancing during her visit to Australia in 1955. The novelist Patrick White wrote the scenario, but Helpmann disliked it intensely. It was rejected, causing a furious row between these two extremely opinionated artists.[citation needed] Both the subject matter and the presentation of the ballet were well in advance of Australian tastes at the time.[citation needed]

The Australian Opera and later workEdit

In 1981 Helpmann worked with the Australian Opera, directing Alcina by Handel, a production later re-staged with Joan Sutherland in the title role. In 1983 he celebrated his sixtieth year in theatre with involvement in productions in the three main auditoriums of the Sydney Opera House: in the Concert Hall he directed Anson Austin and Glenys Fowles in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette for the Australian Opera; in the Opera Theatre he re-choreographed The Display for the Australian Ballet.

In the Drama Theatre he starred for the Sydney Theatre Company in the world premiere of Justin Fleming's play The Cobra. Helpmann's portrayal of the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas, reflecting bitterly on his notorious youthful relationship with Oscar Wilde, was unforgettable. He also played the manservant in the stageplay Stardust, with Googie Withers and John McCallum.

Helpmann directed the London production of the stage musical Camelot, with designs by John Truscott.

He also did work on a short family cartoon film, Don Quixote of La Mancha, where he provided the voice of the main character Don Quixote.


According to the novel based upon the life of Dame Margot Fonteyn, Helpmann is characterized as being a very hard man, but also a very kind one. Fonteyn said herself that out of all her partners, Helpmann was her favourite--even more so than her longer and more famous partnership with Rudolph Nureyev. He was also extremely confident and always pushed Fonteyn to her highest potential. The novel also says that Helpmann would stand up to anyone, and that he could look into the face of the devil himself and laugh.

Helpmann retained much of his dancer's agility for years after he had stopped dancing, as shown by a story from Dick Van Dyke about filming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Whilst filming one of the scenes where the Child Catcher (Helpmann) rides his horse and carriage out of the village, the Cage/Carriage uptilted with Helpmann on board. Van Dyke recalls Helpmann being able to swing out of the carriage and literally skip across the crashing vehicle, and claims that Helpmann did this with incredible grace and agility. Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley, who played Jeremy and Jemimah, described Helpmann as a very generous and kind man. Both would later attend Helpmann's funeral in Australia in the 1980s.

Personal lifeEdit

Helpmann Family, Mt. Gambier, 1911

Helpmann was openly gay. In 1938, Helpmann met a young Oxford undergraduate while fulfilling an invitation to dance at the university. He was immediately drawn to the handsome and intelligent Michael Benthall, and the pair formed a relationship that was to last for 36 years until Benthall's death in 1974. The couple lived and often worked together quite openly for the time. Although devastated by the loss of his longtime companion and collaborator, Helpmann continued to act, direct and produce with his legendary theatrical flair until his death.[1]


Sir Robert Helpmann died in Sydney in 1986, of smoking-related illness. His obituaries in the Australian media were suitably laudatory, but also reserved. The country paid him the highest final recognition it could by honouring him with a state funeral in Sydney,[4] the eulogy calling him "a genius, an outstanding communicator of unique inspiration and insight. He asserted his rights to pursue a path that improved the quality of life of the nation, and defeated the common herd of detractors".[5]

However, an anonymous obituary in The Times of London, likely penned by John Grigg, the former Lord Altrincham, caused upset, particularly one paragraph which stated: "His appearance was strange, haunting and rather frightening. There were, moreover, streaks in his character that made his impact upon a company dangerous as well as stimulating. A homosexual of the proselytising kind, he could turn young men on the borderline his way." It provoked letters of protest, but formed part of a precedent for candid commentary in newspaper obituaries.[6]


In 1964 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).[7] In 1965 he was named "Australian of the Year",[8] and in 1968 he was appointed a Knight Bachelor.[9]

By the 1970s, Australia had grown used to Helpmann's flamboyant persona. His appointment as Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts from 1970 to 1976 was well received. People of Melbourne honoured him as their 1974 King of Moomba.[10]

Posthumous recognitionEdit

The Helpmann Academy in South Australia was named in his honour; it is a partnership of the major visual and performing arts education and training institutions in South Australia offering award courses for people seeking professional careers in the arts. The Helpmann Awards were instituted 2001, and recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in Australia's live performing arts sectors. The Sir Robert Helpmann theatre is named after him at his birthplace in Mount Gambier.

LyreBird (Tales of Helpmann), a play about the life and career of Helpmann, has been performed in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. The play premiered in the United States in 2009.


Year Title Role Notes
1942 One of Our Aircraft Is Missing De Jong
1944 Henry V Bishop of Ely
1946 Caravan Wycroft
1948 The Red Shoes Ivan Boleslawsky
1951 The Tales of Hoffmann Lindorf / Coppelius / Dapertutto / Dr Miracle
1956 The Iron Petticoat Major Ivan Kropotkin
1956 The Big Money The Reverend
1959 The Soldier's Tale The Devil
1963 55 Days at Peking Prince Tuan
1966 The Quiller Memorandum Weng
1968 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Child Catcher
1972 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland The Mad Hatter
1973 Don Quixote Don Quixote
1977 The Mango Tree Professor
1978 Patrick Doctor Roget
1984 Second Time Lucky The Devil

Further readingEdit

  • Kathrine Sorley Walker, Robert Helpmann, An Illustrated study of his work, 1957
  • Elizabeth Salter, Helpmann : The Authorised Biography of Sir Robert Helpmann, 1978
  • Frank Van Straten, Helpmann: A Knight To Remember
  • Anna Bemrose, A Servant of Art: Helpmann in Australia, PHD Thesis, 2003, University of Queensland.
  • Tyler Coppin, LyreBird (Tales of Helpmann), a play
  • Mary Helpmann, The Helpmann Family Story 1796–1964, 1967
  • Caryl Brahams, Robert Helpmann (Choreographer), 1943
  • Gordon Anthony, Studies of Robert Helpmann, 1946
  • Don Featherstone, The Tales of Helpmann,[11] 1990, a documentary film
  • Richard Allen Cave and Anna Meadmore (editors), Robert Helpmann. The Many Faces of a Theatrical Dynamo, 2018 (with DVD)


  1. ^ a b Mentioned in Robert Helpmann: An illustrated study of his work by Kathrine Sorley Walker
  2. ^ "Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet". Ballet Season. 5 March 2014. BBC Four.
  3. ^ Potter, Michelle (October 2003). "Terra Australis". XIII (14). National Library of Australia News. Retrieved 22 July 2008.
  4. ^ Robert Hawke (29 September 1986). "State Funeral for Sir Robert Helpmann". Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia.
  5. ^ Eulogy by Don Dunstan, in Dunstan Collection, Flinders University Library, Box 23.
  6. ^ Starck, Nigel "Sex after death: The obituary as an erratic record of proclivity" Mortality, Vol. 14, No. 4, Routledge, November 2009
  7. ^ It's an Honour: CBE
  8. ^ Lewis, Wendy (2010). Australians of the Year. Pier 9 Press. ISBN 978-1-74196-809-5.
  9. ^ It's an Honour: Knight Bachelor
  10. ^ Craig Bellamy, Gordon Chisholm, Hilary Eriksen (17 Feb 2006) Moomba: A festival for the people.: "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 August 2006. Retrieved 25 March 2011.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) PDF pp 17–22
  11. ^ The Tales of Helpmann on IMDb

External linksEdit

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Advisory Board
Director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts
Succeeded by
Louis van Eyssen