The Australian dancer, actor, director and choreographer SIR ROBERT MURRAY HELPMANN CBE was born on this date (d. 1986). Born Robert Murray Helpman, he added the extra ‘n’ to avoid his name having a numerologically unlucky 13 letters, at the suggestion of the dance diva Anna Pavlova, who was a devotee of numerology.
He was born in Mount Gambier and also boarded at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide, South Australia. The Helpmann Academy in South Australia, a partnership of the major visual and performing arts education and training institutions in South Australia offering award courses for people seeking professional careers in the arts, was named in his honor.
In 1938, Helpmann met a young Oxford undergraduate while fulfilling an invitation to dance at the university. Immediately drawn to the handsome and intelligent Michael Benthall, the pair formed a relationship that was to last for 36 years until the English theater director Benthall’s untimely death in 1974. The couple lived and often worked together quite openly for the time.
In 1965 Helpmann returned to Australia to become co-director of the Australian Ballet. Since he was Gay and flamboyant, his arrival in what was at that time a very conservative country caused some consternation. Australians were proud of his international fame, but not sure what to make of him personally. His most significant contribution to the development of theatre in Australia was his time with the Australian Ballet. The avant-garde nature and sexual overtones of much of his work unsettled many Australians. He did not endear himself with the comment: “I don’t despair about the cultural scene in Australia because there isn’t one here to despair about.”
Helpmann’s obituaries in the Australian media were suitably laudatory, but reserved. The country paid him the highest final recognition it could by honoring him with a state funeral in Sydney, the eulogy calling him “a genius, an outstanding communicator of unique inspiration and insight. He asserted his rights to pursue a path that improved the quality of life of the nation, and defeated the common herd of detractors.” An obituary in The Times in London, characterized his appearance as “strange, haunting and rather frightening”, and portrayed him as “a homosexual of the proselytizing kind” whose impact upon a company was “dangerous as well as stimulating”, creating fresh headlines in Australia.
We salute you sir.