An Australian ballet
dancer, choreographer, actor, and director. Although he was Margot Fonteyn
's most regular partner at Sadler's Wells
between 1935 and 1950, he was not a classical dancer of romantic heroes so much as a master of character
and comic roles.
Bobby Helpmann was born Robert Murray Helpman on 9th April 1909 in Mt Gambier in South Australia. He added the second N to his name later to avoid his stage name having thirteen letters. Educated very spottily at Prince Alfred's College, Adelaide, he much preferred playing truant so he could act and dance and generally show off. As a musical comedy dancer in 1923, he saw Anna Pavlova on her company's tour of Australia, and joined her. After that he worked on revues, pantomimes, and musicals.
In 1932 he went to England and was taken up by Ninette de Valois for her Vic-Wells Ballet (later Sadler's Wells, then the Royal Ballet). He had a clownish or almost grotesque appearance, with a large forehead and bulging eyes, and this and his flamboyant homosexuality and waspish wit made him a striking figure in the ballet world. It is hard to imagine him as a young dancer, since he seems so perfect for the part of menacing old man.
In 1933 he took over from Anton Dolin in the star role of Satan in Job, a Masque for Dancing. This was the first of five major roles in de Valois ballets over the next few years. The first role he created in these was in The Haunted Ballroom (1934); this was followed by the Rake in The Rake's Progress (1935, music of Stravinsky), the Red King in Checkmate (1937, music of Bliss), and the drunken stage manager in The Prospect Before Us. One of his last roles for de Valois was Don Quixote in 1950.
As a choreographer he did a brooding, psychological Hamlet in 1942, in the form of flashbacks from the moment of death; Miracle of the Gorbals (music of Bliss) in 1944; and Adam Zero in 1946. He danced the lead in each of these. He was much helped in the planning of these by his lifelong partner Michael Benthall. He also revived Jules Perrot's nineteenth-century star vehicle for four ballerinas, Pas de Quatre.
Turning to film of ballet, Helpmann directed The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer, in 1948, and Tales of Hoffmann in 1950, as well as dancing in them.
That was the year of his sudden resignation from Sadler's Wells, and his concentration to straight theatre, both acting and directing. Helpmann as a director did Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden in 1950, and plays including Murder in the Cathedral in 1953 and As You Like It in 1955. His final production was The Merry Widow at the Sydney Opera House in 1974.
He had already played Oberon in 1937, and went on to play Shylock, Hamlet, Richard III, and King John at the Old Vic or Stratford. He had appeared in Olivier's film of Henry V in 1944, and in 1978 was in Patrick. He appeared with Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh in Antony and Cleopatra, and Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, and with Katharine Hepburn in The Millionairess; these two successful partnerships took him on tour back to his home country.
From 1962 he spent more time in Australia. Bobby Helpmann joined Peggy van Praagh as co-director of the newly-formed Australian Ballet in 1965, the country's first truly national ballet company. Appointed CBE in 1964, he was knighted in 1968. His partner Michael Benthall died in 1974, and Sir Robert died in Sydney on 28th September 1986.
Lots from Dictionary of National Biography and the Britannica.