Monday, 11 April 2011

"Lollipops! Bright shiny lollipops!"

The magnificently camp Robert Helpmann - dancer, choreographer, and actor - was born in South Australia on 9 April 1909.

In his eight decade career, he danced with Anna Pavlova during her Australian tour in 1926, was premier danseur with Sadler's Wells from 1933 to 1950, and worked with such notable legends of the ballet world as Frederick Ashton, Ninette de Valois, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

From Ballet Magazine:
"I can do something with that face" - so Ninette de Valois famously said when she first saw Robert Helpmann. He had just arrived in London to join the Vic-Wells Ballet; he was 24, and in his native Australia he had already begun his career as an actor and dancer, including a tour with Pavlova's company as a student. With de Valois' support he became the company's leading male dancer, partnering Fonteyn as she grew to greatness in the classics, and choreographed a number of works in the 40s at least two of which earned a place in the repertoire. Most of all, he created unforgettable characters, both comic and dramatic, in many works by Ashton and de Valois. He had the priceless gift of being able to hold an audience, no matter what he was doing.

From the Helpmann Awards site:
When Sir Robert Helpmann died in Sydney on 28 September 1986 the curtain fell on a career so long, diverse and extraordinary that obituary writers hardly knew where to start. Into his 77 years he had packed more activity, met more challenges and excelled in more fields than any of his contemporaries, in Australia or overseas.

What was he? A dancer? A choreographer? A director of ballets, plays and operas? A stage, film and television actor? Even a singer? He was all these and much, much more: a theatrical chameleon, capable of adroitly adapting his prodigious knowledge, talent and enthusiasm to everything he tackled. Robert Helpmann was unique.
Mr Helpmann is perhaps best remembered by international audiences today for his visually stunning screen performances in the cult Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, as "Prince Tuan" in 55 Days At Peking, and, most of all for his portrayal of one of the most scary villains of all time, the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Many years after its 1948 premiere, an intrepid reporter asked Helpmann if the portrait in The Red Shoes of dancers' lives was an over-the-top exaggeration. He replied, "Oh, no, dear boy, it was quite understated." However, as choreographer in both the UK and his native Oz - he was artistic director of the Australian Ballet from 1965 to 1976 - among his numerous choreographic works are Comus, Elektra, Hamlet, Adam Zero, Miracle in the Gorbals and The Display.

His waspish personality was legend - he famously fell out with the other principal Queen of the Ballet Freddie Ashton, and their spats were the stuff of backstage gossip for years.

My favourite anecdote about Mr Helpmann has been related many times before...
During a ballet tour, Sir Robert Helpmann's company played a huge sports arena. The management gave Helpmann the referees' dressing room. Before the performance, the stage manager peeked in to give to Sir Robert his call and was amused to discover the star standing on a chair, perched atop a table, beneath the room's one and only light bulb. Holding a small mirror, Helpmann was applying intricate eye makeup. "Are you alright Sir Robert?" the stage manager asked. "Well yes, I suppose," he replied, "but heaven knows how the referees cope!"

Michael Benthall

From the GLBTQ site:
His flair for playing to the press and keeping his name before the public also brought him many other invitations, among them one to dance at Oxford University, where he met a 19-year-old undergraduate named Michael Benthall.

Helpmann noted at the time that Benthall had matinee idol looks and understood what he was talking about: this was the start of something big, a professional and personal partnership that would endure for thirty-six years until Benthall's death in 1974. Although their relationship was conducted in accordance with the rules of decorum and discretion of the time, they lived together and were recognized as a couple in their wide social circle.
RIP a genius.

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