Helpmann’s last move on the chessboard

In 1986, Robert Helpmann was in hospital suffering from emphysema when the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, Maina Gielgud, and ballet master, Colin Peasley, brought the good news.

Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, had given the Australian Ballet something for nothing. De Valois’s gift was her ballet, Checkmate, in which Helpmann had created the role of the Red King at its premiere in 1937.

Peasley, raconteur, character dancer, and walking encyclopaedia of the Australian Ballet’s history, remembers that it was Gielgud’s idea that they would break the news to Helpmann by his hospital bed.

“It will make his day”, she assured Peasley.

But, Peasley says, the response was not quite what they expected when Gielgud told Helpmann “Ninette’s given us Checkmate in your honour. I’ve been wanting to do the production for a long time”.

Helpmann replied “Wonderful! I’m still capable of doing it!”

“And 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”.

Checkmate entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire on May 6, 1986, at the Sydney Opera House, with de Valois’ choreography reproduced by Jacquie Hollander and Petal Miller Ashmole. Lisa Pavane was the Black Queen, David Ashmole was the First Red Knight, Greg Horsman was the Second Red Knight, and David McAllister was one the Black Knights.

The Australian newspaper reporter who attended the dress rehearsal gave an eyewitness account:

“Sir Robert Helpmann desperately tries to control his fury, and hide his fear, as he catches sight of the ruthless Black Queen during dress rehearsals for tonight’s opening of the Australian Ballet production of Checkmate…on stage yesterday at the Opera House, the toll of age did not have to be painted on by the make-up artists.

” His lined hands and tired eyes were reminders of the long years the dancer has spent on stages around the world. But age has not withered his genius.” [6 May 1986]

Peasley, the understudy for the entire Sydney season, said that Helpmann did “every bloody performance. I think he wanted to die on stage!”

Helpmann was so determined to get through the season that he rested for much of the day then arrived at the Opera House hours before the curtain was due to go up.

As balletmaster, it was Peasley’s duty to make sure everyone was present and correct before the show.

One evening “I knocked on the door of Bobby’s dressing room and there was no answer. I thought this is strange, he didn’t look good last night, he looked grey, but he would have rung me [if there was anything wrong].

“Knock, knock again. The doors are thick; I thought he probably didn’t hear me. So I pushed the door open and there down the end of the dressing room in a chair was Bobby like this”. And Peasley mimes a lifeless body.

“I went ‘Oh!’ And he said ‘Fooled you that time didn’t I!’”

Following the Sydney season, Helpmann returned to hospital but was up and about once more for the Melbourne season in July.

After Melbourne, he returned to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital where he died on 28 September.

The Australian Ballet took Checkmate to Adelaide, where Peasley played the Red King, a difficult gig, as Adelaide is Helpmann’s home town.

The company brought Checkmate back in 1992, when it was performed in London during the company’s 30th anniversary tour.

De Valois, then in her 90s, decided to look in on rehearsals. Gielgud had slipped upstairs to another studio when Peasley was “in the middle or rehearsing all these bloody pawns and there’s a commotion at the door, and it was Ninette, and I’m stuck with taking the rehearsal of her ballet.

“I loved Ninette”, said Peasley. We got on like a house on fire” despite the fact that “she was an aggressive little woman, very determined. She had her way for the last 60 years, so nobody said ‘No Madam’, everybody said ‘Yes madam, Yes Madam’.

“I loved the fact that Ninette was a mathematical choreographer, and Checkmate is all set to counts, not in eights, it’s a six, a seven, a five and eight, you’re continually counting. The continual pointe work is a bit of a problem – it’s stabby, and it was made on midget people [in the 1930s] and we don’t have midgets anymore”.

The corps dancing the pawns in 2011 are taller and leaner than the original Australian Ballet pawns too, so the costumes have been remade for the season of British works that the company is presenting at the Sydney Opera House in May.

As for Peasley, he is reprising the Red King, and knowing his charisma on stage, he will dominate the action, just as Helpmann did, first in 1937, and again almost 50 years later in the ballet that was destined to be his last move.

British Liaisons, comprising Checkmate, Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, is at the Sydney Opera House from May 3 – 21 and at the State Theatre, Melbourne, from 25 August – 3 September.

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