Robert Helpmann

(1909—1986) ballet dancer and actor

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(b Mount Gambier, 9 Apr. 1909; d Sydney, 28 Sept. 1986)

Australian dancer, choreographer, director, and actor. He studied locally as a child then with Pavlova's company while it was touring Australia. After performing in musicals and revues he came to London in 1933 and was accepted into the Vic-Wells (later Sadler's Wells) Ballet where he was promoted principal in 1934. In 1935 he danced with Weidman and in the revue Stop Press but otherwise remained with Sadler's Wells Ballet until 1950 (and as occasional guest artist thereafter). Although he lacked a powerful technique, his vivid dramatic talent, musicality, and stage presence allowed him to portray convincingly elegant classical princes as well as to create memorable interpretations of contemporary roles. His celebrated partnership with Fonteyn played a major part in the development of Sadler's Wells Ballet and in the popularization of dance in Britain. He created many leading roles in, among others, de Valois's The Haunted Ballroom (1934), Checkmate (1937), The Prospect Before Us (1940), and Don Quixote (1950), and Ashton's Apparitions (1936), A Wedding Bouquet (1937), Dante Sonata (1940), Don Juan, and Cinderella (both 1948). He created his first workshop ballet, La Valse (mus. Ravel) in 1939 for the Royal Academy of Dancing and his first professional ballet in 1942, Comus (mus. Purcell–Lambert) for Sadler's Wells Ballet. This was followed by Hamlet (mus. Tchaikovsky, 1942), Miracle in the Gorbals (mus. Bliss, 1944), and Adam Zero (mus. Bliss, 1946). Though his choreographic ideas were not original he had an instinct for inventive staging and narrative and created the leading roles in all these works. During this period he also worked occasionally as an actor and opera producer, appearing notably in the films The Red Shoes (1948) and Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In 1955 he went to Australia with the Old Vic Company, starring with Katharine Hepburn in The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and The Taming of the Shrew. In 1960 he collaborated with Nijinska on the de Cuevas production of Sleeping Beauty and in 1963 worked with Ashton on the Royal Ballet production of Swan Lake. In the same year he also choreographed Elektra (mus. Arnold) for the Royal Ballet. In 1965 he was appointed joint director (with van Praagh) of Australian Ballet, having choreographed a ballet for the company in 1964, The Display (mus. M. Williamson). He subsequently created Yugen (mus. Y. Toyama, 1965), Sun Music (mus. P. Sculthorpe, 1968), and Perisynthyon (mus. Williamson, 1974) for the company. Between 1975 and 1976 he was sole director of Australian Ballet, during which time he produced R. Hynd's ballet The Merry Widow, which became the biggest hit in its repertoire. In 1973 he directed and performed the title role in Nureyev's film Don Quixote. Though he retired from Australian Ballet in 1976 he continued making occasional stage appearances until his death. He was knighted in 1968.

Subjects: Dance.

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