Sir Robert Helpmann became an international ballet star and choreographer as well as a famed actor and director. Openly gay, he lived with partner Michael Benthall until Michael’s death in 1974.
Astonishingly, for an openly gay man in the twentieth century, Helpmann was Australian of the Year in 1966, knighted in 1968 and given the rare honour of a state funeral when he died.
Young Bobbie Helpman (he added the second ‘n’ later) seemed an unlikely candidate for the ballet with a stock and station agent for a father. However, his mother enjoyed cultural pursuits and recited Shakespeare to him as a baby.
Later the pair acted out the plays with Bobbie apparently partial to the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Later, when his parents agreed to ballet lessons, he became his ballet teacher’s first male student. Unused to teaching male roles, she simply stuck with what she knew – and taught him female roles.
Bobbie made his stage debut at the age of 13 in The Ugly Duckling.
On a business trip to Melbourne, Bobbie’s father met the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova and convinced her to allow his son to join her company.
He toured Australia for 15 months with the greatest dancer of the age. At the end of the tour, she asked him to continue on to Europe, but his father thought him too young at 15.
Instead, Bobbie embarked on a career as a burlesque dancer in Australia.
In 1933 he finally left for London and joined what is now the Royal Ballet.
The director of the ballet said of him, “Everything about him proclaims the artist born.”
She gave a comprehensive overview of his strengths and weaknesses.
“Talented, enthusiastic, extremely intelligent, great facility, witty, cute as a monkey, quick as a squirrel, a sense of theatre and his own possible achievements therein, she said.
However, she also noted he was “academically technically weak, lacking in concentration, too fond of a good time and too busy having it.”
Rising quickly through the ranks of British dancers, Robert added movie acting to his repertoire during World War II.
In the late 1940’s Robert choreographed one of the greatest dance movies of all time, The Red Shoes.
He also began acting onstage and directing opera. He earned renown as a theatrical polymath, able to turn his hand to any number of artistic endeavours.
Robert Helpmann stayed away from Australia for many years but finally returned home in the 1960s.
“I was always nervous about coming back to Australia which was a complete hangover of the days when I left when ballet was not accepted when I was considered a freak for wanting to be a ballet dancer. And, to be 100% honest, I rather dreaded coming back.”
As he well might have.
Even in the 60s, Australians found him a little too camp for their taste.
A group of yobs took exception to him strolling along Bondi Beach in a purple shirt, pink tie with plucked eyebrows and painted nails, and dumped him in the surf.
Robert got the last laugh though.
With the Beach Boys riding the wave of surf-themed music, HMV had him record some surf songs and sold him as a teen idol.
Check out the clip on YouTube of the 54-year-old singing Surfer Girl in a blonde surfie wig.
You could not find camper than Robert Helpmann.
However, within a few years of returning home, Helpmann won the Australian public over.
Camp as he was, he proved a popular Australian of the Year and the country took pride in his knighthood.
He worked to the death acting, choreographing and directing.
‘A Country Practice’
He acted in A Country Practice, directed the Adelaide festival and directed Joan Sutherland at the Sydney Opera House.
He embraced everything, though with the exception of nude dance.
“The problem with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music stops.”
He defended the ballet as sex enough.
“Aren’t all ballets sexy? I think they should be. I can think of nothing kinkier than a prince chasing around a swan all night.”
He was working onstage until just months before his death.
When he died, he received the rare honour of a state funeral – something usually given former Prime Ministers and war heroes.
Sir Robert said of his life:
“Theatre remains the only thing I understand…. It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being.
“In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety, this is the only life I know.
“It is a life of love.”
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