Robert Helpmann 1958: From the nude with violin to the lunch with Nugget Coombs

No one excelled Robert Helpmann as a multi tasker.

Dancer, choreographer, actor, singer, director and publicist, Helpmann was at the peak of his multi tasking life in 1958/59 when he joined the Royal Ballet as a guest artist during the company’s tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Although he lived in London at the time, he was touring Australia as the director and actor in Noel Coward’s play, Nude With Violin, when the Royal Ballet arrived in Australia.

Helpmann intrigued the press with his multiple roles.

On one occasion he spoke to the media while he held a glass of gin and tonic, waving it around for a theatrical effect.

He also struck a ballet pose for the press photographers as he walked down the steps of an aircraft to the tarmac at Brisbane airport.

In January 1959, when raging bush fires circled his home town, Mount Gambier, he drove from Adelaide to the site of the fires where he helped the firefighters. The scene, he told reporters, was “like the London blitz”.

During Helpmann’s stint in Australia he was celebrated as a prodigal son, “a genius in a hurry” and a hero who had made a “triumphal return to the ballet stage”.

He acknowledged that at 49, he would never again dance the prince roles in classical ballets but he was still able to shine in the Royal Ballet repertoire as Dr Coppelius, the title character in de Valois’ ballet, The Rake’s Progress and the tango dancer in Frederick Ashton’s Façade.

Helpmann also doubled up as actor and dancer in his own ballet, Hamlet. When the curtain rose at the theatres in Adelaide and Brisbane, he posed on the stage to read the famous soliloquy that begins ‘to be or not to be, that is the question…”

From Adelaide the Royal Ballet touring group flew to Brisbane in a DC 6.

The plane hit a storm during the flight.

The pilot told the passengers he would have to fly higher than planned. As there was no oxygen in the cabin some of the passengers and air hostesses, as they were called, passed out.

Helpmann, however, remained in playful mode and decided to dress up in one of the crew’s uniforms and push a trolley down the aisle of the cabin.

After the Brisbane season the company flew to Dunedin in March 1959, then on to Christchurch, Wellington and finally Auckland.

In the book, The Royal Ballet, the First 50 Years, the author wrote that Helpmann left the company before the NZ tour but I recently discovered some images from the Wellington newspaper, the Evening Post, showing Helpmann all smiles as he arrived in Wellington on 23 March 1959, along with Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes who had not toured in Australia but joined the company for the New Zealand leg.

Helpmann’s hand luggage is embossed with his initials RH.

The handover from Edouard Borovansky to Peggy van Praagh: Helpmann’s role

During the 1958/59 tour to Australia and New Zealand, Helpmann also played a role in the transition of the Borovansky Ballet’s artistic director, Edouard Borovansky to Peggy van Praagh, a transition that ultimately led to Helpmann becoming co-artistic director of the Australian Ballet.

In late 1958 Edouard Borovansky was in London, hoping to find an artistic associate to help him maintain and strengthen his company.

He talked with Tamara Tchinarova, his former colleague (when she lived in Australia) and he also approached van Praagh to see if she would be interested in working with him in Australia. They both rejected his offer.

Borovansky wasn’t the only person who hoped Van Praagh might move to Australia.

Van Praagh had spent almost a decade as ballet mistress of the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet company but in 1955, her boss, Ninette de Valois, director of both the touring Sadlers Wells Ballet Theatre and the Sadlers Wells Ballet, (later both called the Royal Ballet) told her she had no option but to leave and work with the Norway Ballet.

By 1958, van Praagh was dance director of the Edinburgh International Ballet.

Back in Melbourne, a group of men and women who either danced with the Ballet Rambert or had connections with the Royal Ballet, planned to start a new national ballet company in Australia, hoping for financial support with the help of the chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, H. G. (“Nugget”) Coombs who was also the governor of the Commonwealth Bank, (then the central bank of Australia that, in turn, became the Reserve Bank).

The group included Margaret Scott and Sally Gilmour who knew van Praagh from their days as dancers at the Ballet Rambert.

During the Australian tour of the Royal Ballet, another member of the group, Geoffrey Ingram, contacted Helpmann, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, seeking his views on a new national ballet company in Australia.

On 22 December 1958, on the initiative of Coombs, a lunch meeting was held to discuss the possibility of government funding for that company.

Coombs’ guests included Helpmann, John Field, the director of the touring ballet company, Margaret Scott, her husband, Derek Denton and Ingram.

Coombs made it clear that government funding was unlikely as the Australian public appeared to be serviced by the existing Borovansky company.

When Borovansky died at the end of 1959 Van Praagh was first in line to take his place as artistic director of the Borovansky Ballet.

Van Praagh wasn’t sure if she should accept the offer or canvass other options.

According to her biographer, Christopher Sexton, she consulted Helpmann “who strongly advised her to accept the position and even promised that he would come out later to choreograph a new ballet for the company”.

As he did for the Australian Ballet much later.

His 1964 ballet, The Display, proved to be a calling company for that company and the following year, Helpmann became the co-artistic director of the Australian Ballet with van Praagh.

That collaboration lasted a decade.

When van Praagh was told her role as co-artistic director would end late in 1974 Helpmann became the sole artistic director.

Then Helpmann, too, was shown the door, told he would be leaving the company in June 1976.

His lasting gift to the Australian Ballet was The Merry Widow, a ballet that remains an audience pleaser and will return to the stage in 2018.

When Helpmann died in 1986 a State funeral was held in Sydney’s St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral.

From 2001 the annual Helpmann Awards were named in his honour and while his portrait can still be seen in the Sydney Opera House, it’s van Praagh who is closer to the dancers of the Australian Ballet.

Her portrait is on a wall in the big studio of the company’s centre in Melbourne.

Every day, she looks down at the dancers and they, in turn, can look at her.

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Artists of The Australian-Ballet in The Merry Widow, photo © Jeff Busby

Robert Helpmann, Margot Fonteyn, with Michael Somes, arrival at Wellington, 23 March 1959, Evening Post newspaper, photographer unknown, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Wellington civic reception for Margot Fonteyn, 4 March 1959, Evening Post newspaper, photographer unknown, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Robert Helpmann at home in London

Robert Helpmann in The Rake’s Progress

Robert Helpmann as Dr Coppelius

Peggy van Praagh, Melbourne,1962, photo KeithByron