Helpmann: “I like to be head of everything”

His first and most adoring fan was his mother. One day she found a pile of old newspapers on the floor. She touched the paper stack and out came little Bobby, not yet six, improvising his own special dance, representing springtime.

“When he was a little chap,” Maytie Helpman said (her son changed the spelling to Helpmann for his own use), “he used to take away my stockings and use them for tights. He would tie feathers round his head, too, and go roaming round the streets until I’m sure people thought I had a lunatic in the family.”

Other mothers might have stopped the nonsense right there. But Maytie Helpman and her husband, Sam, never said, “No, Bobby, you can’t go to dancing school. You’re three.” Or, “No, Bobby, you can’t wear that blonde wig, tutu and pointe shoes then whip off the wig at the curtain call.”

Instead, in the conservative city of Adelaide early in the 20th century the boy learned how to entertain, to amuse, to be the focus of attention, and eventually to refine the role of Robert Helpmann, actor, impersonator, director, producer, dancer, clown and choreographer.

And the boss. As he told an interviewer in 1974, “I like to be head of everything.”

Helpmann’s theatrical path was smoothed by a succession of women – his mother first, then Anna Pavlova, actress Margaret Rawlings and pioneer of British ballet Ninette de Valois. In his private life he was loved and supported first by aristocratic Englishman Michael Benthall, then Christopher Brown who, in the 1980s, co-directed with Helpmann productions for Opera Australia and the San Diego Opera.

Unlucky enough to be born in a country and at a time when gay men were ridiculed, the flamboyant Helpmann made his mark in London, at Covent Garden and Stratford-upon-Avon, initially taking guidance from composer and conductor Constant Lambert, whom Helpmann described as “worldly-wise and sure of himself, able to talk of any subject from Picasso to Stravinsky … All in all, the sort of person I longed to be.”

As an actor and dancer, Helpmann mesmerised audiences in pivotal roles such as Hamlet, King John, Shylock, Dr Coppelius, Don Quixote and the Red King in Checkmate. Even charismatic Margot Fonteyn, his dance partner for more than 20 years, complained how Helpmann upstaged all others.

He managed the media with charm and wit, always ready with a quip, a quote and a new angle. He dressed to impress, in a mink coat, silver and gold bangles, neck chains with medallions as big as small saucers, shoe buckles, cowboy boots, safari suits, high-collared leather jackets, and rings set with large yellow diamonds.

Nothing became him as much as his drag role in Cinderella, in which he was dressed as an Ugly Stepsister wearing a towering wig topped with feathers, an off-the-shoulder dress and a rope of pearls.

Helpmann left Australia for London when he was 23 and did not return until he was 46, and then only temporarily. From the day he sailed in December 1932 to the end of his life, Helpmann was an artist of two hemispheres. He brought an Australian swagger to England and an English sensibility to his later work in Australia. England made him, but as an expatriate, Helpmann relied on his own nationality to free him from middle-class English social niceties. As an outsider he could stir, tell outrageous stories and push himself to the foreground at all times. Or as Helpmann put it: “Being born in Australia gave me the opportunity to be outgoing.”

Helpmann was immersed in the culture of England from the start. His mother, who had acting ambitions, read Shakespeare to him as a child. His first stage appearance in Australia was as an eight-year-old actor with the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company. As a student dancer he toured with the company of Anna Pavlova, one of the many artists contracted by Nevin Tait in London and presented in Australia by Tait’s brothers, who controlled the theatrical firm of J. C. Williamson.

Five years before he left for London, Helpmann won a contract from J. C. Williamson to perform in Anglocentric shows such as The Maid of the Mountains, C. B. Cochran’s London Pavilion revue This Year of Grace and, finally, in JCW’s production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, starring English couple Gabriel Toyne and his wife Margaret Rawlings, who encouraged Helpmann to go to England.

He sailed on the Orsova in 1932 with the most important document of his life so far – Rawlings’s letter of introduction to de Valois, director of the Vic-Wells Ballet, which became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and eventually the Royal Ballet.

Adding that extra “n” to his surname, Helpmann became a Shakespearean actor, played an important role in the flowering of English ballet, and lived at the best addresses he could afford, among them a garden flat in Eaton Square in Belgravia, a few doors down from Vivien Leigh. From the moment de Valois saw Helpmann and judged him as “the artist born”, he was fast-tracked through London’s theatre world. She found him “cute as a monkey, talented, enthusiastic, intelligent, witty, [with] great facility and vitality” but “lacking in concentration and too fond of a good time and too busy having it”.

As her protege, Helpmann sprinted up the ladder, from the corps de ballet in 1933 to principal roles only a year later, among them Albrecht in Giselle and Siegfried in Swan Lake and soon partnered ballerinas Alicia Markova and Fonteyn.

“At Vic-Wells, he was loved as well as feared for his wicked pop-eyed mimicry and his vitriolic tongue,” wrote Fonteyn’s biographer, Meredith Daneman. “He alone of the company could be guaranteed to make even de Valois at her most furious scream with laughter.”

Helpmann’s induction into Britain was complete by 1938 when he met Benthall, an Oxford undergraduate. A decade younger than Helpmann, handsome Benthall was the son of Edward Benthall, a knight and colonial politician who had worked in India and was later a governor of the BBC.

Later, as artistic director of the Old Vic, Michael Benthall directed Helpmann in the roles of Hamlet, Shylock and King John, and created the scenario for Helpmann’s ballets Miracle in the Gorbals and Adam Zero. Their close relationship lasted until the early 60s when Benthall left the Old Vic to take over his father’s business affairs and became increasingly stressed and an alcoholic.

Helpmann’s dancing career peaked in the mid-40s when correspondents for Australian newspapers were ushered into his dressing-room at the Royal Opera House, where they found him reclining on a sofa, sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, maintaining a languid air. One writer was struck by “the deep-set tragic eyes that have hypnotised so many audiences in the past and inevitably you fall under the spell of his personality”.

Another saw his eyes as “soft and liquid, and his brow is lined with what one takes to be artistic discontent. He hasn’t, for all his triumphant reorientation, forgotten Australia. He wants to take the Sadler’s Wells company there and he is nostalgically planning at the moment to present the new Australian ballet Corroboree, by the young composer [John] Antill, to his myriad fans in London.”

It took another decade before Helpmann returned to Australia, and not with Corroboree but in the Old Vic’s 1955 tour of Australia. Feted as the prodigal son and the star of the films The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, he was accompanied by an even bigger name – his co-star Katharine Hepburn.

As the couple toured Australia, a media pack always close behind, Helpmann began to see his own country through a tourist’s eyes, from the Great Barrier Reef to Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, where they watched the male lyrebirds’ courtship display. It was the inspiration for Helpmann’s work for the Australian Ballet, The Display.

Correspondence between the AB and the organisation that managed and funded the company in the 60s indicates how many hurdles were jumped before the premiere. In February 1963, three months after the AB came into being, its artistic director Peggy van Praagh wrote to Stefan Haag, executive director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, to tell him she had received “a sad little letter” from Helpmann.

“He is obviously desperately disappointed that we don’t like his Lyrebird Ballet,” she wrote. But six months later, van Praagh told Haag: “Concerning Helpmann’s ballet, we have a meeting lined up with ourselves, Sidney Nolan and Patrick White [in London] on August 30.”

At the time, Sidney and Cynthia Nolan were squiring White around London, taking him to the opera and ballet and introducing him to theatre directors. By early September, van Praagh was happy to tell Haag: “Patrick White has agreed to produce a scenario as we felt he would give it a dramatic touch. Sidney Nolan has already produced early sketches for decor and costumes, which I think are ravishing. After hearing several composers [including Douglas Gamley], Bobby and I have decided on Malcolm Williamson … ”

At the end of 1963, van Praagh advised that the White scenario had been abandoned in favour of Helpmann’s simpler story, one that was “more suitable to the medium of ballet”. Using the lyrebirds’ display as a metaphor for the mateship displays of Australian men, Helpmann’s scenario unfolded at a bush picnic for a group of mates and their girlfriends.

The leader of the men was danced by Bryan Lawrence, his girlfriend by Kathleen Gorham, the Outsider by Garth Welch and the lyrebird by Barry Kitcher, dressed in an ornate costume with wings, a feathered headdress with a beak, and a tail nearly 5m long. A fight between the Leader and the Outsider left the Outsider unconscious. When he recovered he danced an erotic pas de deux with the girl. In Kitcher’s memoir From Gaolbird to Lyrebird: A Life in Australian Ballet, he describes how the Outsider stripped off the girl’s dress, leaving her “sobbing on the ground … the Lyrebird reappears and she gives herself totally to him, her hands caressing the tail in ecstatic submission and engulfment”.

Helpmann explained that his ballet showed “the hostility of a group to any outsider who does not wish to be part of a communal life; how a number of people when they band together in a mob can lose their humanity and become brutalised”. The ballet referred to his own life, Helpmann said, the person who defied the group, “not behaving according to the accepted norm”.

During rehearsals, Helpmann milked every possible publicity opportunity, inviting Ron Barassi to help stage the football game and former boxers to coach the dancers for the brawl. The ballet opened in March 1964 to positive press reviews. The Display represented “a long awaited event, a wholly Australian ballet”, “a milestone in Australian ballet and theatre generally” and “an exciting event, a brilliant piece of stagecraft … it is not a pretty ballet, it is intended to shock and it succeeds”.

Throughout the 60s The Display toured Australia, became a calling card for the AB on international tours and represented Helpmann’s dominance on the company’s repertoire. It is being revived this year as part of the AB’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Less than a year after The Display’s premiere, Haag asked Helpmann to become the company’s “artistic collaborator and principal choreographer”. Van Praagh was far from happy when, in February 1965, Helpmann told Haag he would accept the more prestigious role of co-artistic director. The deal was impressive. Helpmann would earn an annual retainer of £2000, a separate fee for his choreography, and a return airfare to London each year. He guaranteed to live in Australia for no less than three months of any year.

The co-artistic directorship lasted nine years, with Helpmann being the choreographer, producer and showman while van Praagh was the workaholic in the studio, teaching, rehearsing and keeping schedules.

Inevitably, the communication between the two faltered in time. Helpmann was a gypsy, always on the move from London to Southeast Asia to the US, including his favourite stopover state, Hawaii, where he surfed at Waikiki, and back to Sydney, where he lived in a penthouse suite at the Chevron Hotel in Kings Cross.

Helpmann choreographed three more works for the AB: Yugen, Sun Music and Perisynthyon. None survived the co-artistic directorship or the one year (1975) he led the company as sole artistic director, after which he was fired by the board. In a triumphant flourish of “I’ll show you!”, that same year he produced Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow, a huge and long-lived success for the AB.

Helpmann, by then, could have spent his middle age reclining on Waikiki beach, but that wasn’t the way of a showman who was soon to become a knight.

In 1970, the man who always wanted to be boss became artistic director of the Adelaide Festival and played the role of the Don in Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote the same year. When Don Quixote travelled to Sydney that year, Helpmann posed for The Australian Women’s Weekly in a snakeskin print shirt unbuttoned to his midriff, with two gold chains nestling in his chest hair and his usual cigarette held in his left hand. Was he tired of all the media interest? “It’s part of my job, isn’t it?” he told the reporter.

A heavy smoker all his life, Helpmann developed emphysema and was in hospital in 1986 when the AB’s artistic director Maina Gielgud and ballet master Colin Peasley came to call with some good news.

De Valois had given the AB the gift of her 1937 ballet Checkmate, in which Helpmann had created the role of the Red King. To their surprise, Helpmann said he was strong enough to reprise the role.

Peasley remembers: “Maina looked at me and I looked at Maina and I thought, ‘We’ve got ourselves into something here!’ But he fixed himself up to do the production and he did every performance. And, as old and sick and frail as he was, he still overpowered the stage. That man, he had a presence on stage.”

After the Sydney season Helpmann returned to hospital but was ready once more for the Melbourne season in July. Then came his final curtain. Helpmann died at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital on September 28, 1986. His ashes were scattered on the sea at Waikiki.

Artist Donald Friend wrote in his diary: “Bobby died. I liked him, I knew him since I was 16 – he was the first wit I ever met – wistful dancer, choreographer and marvellous mime …

“One of those rare personalities who flowed like a stream rushing down rapids – leaping, chuckling, throwing out spray like cascades of diamonds, flashing over rocks: mingling confidently with calm river sketches, allying itself always to its own existence, the great ocean.”

Robert Helpmann’s The Display is performed as part of the Australian Ballet’s Icons season, which opens in Melbourne on August 30 and Sydney on November 8.

This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, 18 August, 2012