Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Robert Helpmann & Anna Pavlova
Little Bobbie Helpman was a delicate infant. On doctor’s orders, anything liable to make him cry was forbidden. His adoring mother, a woman of theatrical disposition, recited Shakespeare to him in his cot. As he grew, they took to acting the roles. He particularly liked to play Juliet, dressed for the part in mother’s costume. When he talked her into sending him to ballet school, he was the only boy in the class.
Unfamiliar with the male parts, Miss Stewart taught him to dance the female ones. In early 1920s Adelaide, Robert Helpman was certainly one of a kind.
His father, a stock and station agent, was more than a little bemused by his son and heir’s flamboyance, but he did not stand in his way. In 1922 young Robert, aged 13, made his stage debut in The Ugly Duckling at the Theatre Royal.
His mother’s ambition for him was great but it was his father who orchestrated his most decisive step. Returning from a business trip to Melbourne in 1926, his father announced that he had met a girl with her own dance company and persuaded her to take Bobbie into it. By the following week, mother and son were in Melbourne. The ‘girl’ was Anna Pavlova.
The Russian prima ballerina was then at the height of her fame. A product of the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, she had driven herself relentlessly, overcoming a lowly birth and weak ankles to enchant the world with her ethereal fragility and peerless bourrées. After a twirl with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and a tizz with Nijinski, she took her terpsichorean divertissements on the road, touring permanently with her own troupe.
Helpman thought her “a goddess”, the greatest possible creature on the stage. Every night for 15 months he watched “this lonely figure” practising right up to the moment the curtain rose, when magic began. For all the “tremendous, hard, gruelling, cruel work” that ballet demanded, he took to it like a swan to a lake. At the tour’s end, Pavlova invited him to return with her to Europe. His father thought not, so he became a burlesque dancer in commercial reviews.
In 1931 Anna Pavlova died of pleurisy in The Hague after catching a cold in a broken-down train. She expired clutching her costume from The Dying Swan. By the time he pas de deux-ed with Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpman had become ‘Robert Helpmann’, possibly on Pavlova’s advice; she was a devotee of numerology and the extra letter makes for a more propitious total.
The Helpmann Awards have recognised artistic excellence since 2001. The pavlova is a fluffy meringue, perfect with a little fresh fruit.