Robert Helpmann’s ballet ‘The Display’

This is an expanded version of an article first published in ‘Panorama’, The Canberra Times, 7 July 2012, p. 15 under the title ‘an icon of dance’, and in The Saturday Age, 7 July 2012, p. 24 with the title ‘In matters theatrical, Helpmann’s ideas soared above Patrick White’s  bizarre flights of fancy’. The shorter version also appears online.


As part of its forthcoming Icons program, the Australia Ballet will restage Robert Helpmann’s 1964 work, The Display. I am curious to know how this work will stand up choreographically and theatrically now that close to 50 years have passed since it was conceived. The old black and white ABC studio recording shows a work that could still be gripping today with the right cast and informed coaching.

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird (the Male) in 'The Display', 1964

Barry Kitcher as the Male in The Display, the Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

But I am also fascinated by the stories that surround the creation of The Display. Helpmann claimed, so the Australian Ballet’s current promotional material says, that The Display was inspired by a dream he had in which he saw his friend and theatrical colleague, Katharine Hepburn, naked on a dais surrounded by lyrebirds.

Helpmann and Hepburn came to Australia together in 1955 as the leading actors with a Shakespearean company sent out from London by the Old Vic. Hepburn, who toured in Australia for a period of about six months, was fascinated by the habits of the lyrebird, which she saw on a trip to Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, and she insisted that Helpmann come with her to watch the lyrebird in its mating dance. Helpmann later included a note in a program for The Display in which he maintained that the movements he eventually choreographed for the character of the lyrebird in his ballet were those ‘learned after many hours of watching this beautiful creature’. So the background was certainly there for Helpmann to dream the dream he is alleged to have had.

The storyline of The Display concerns a group of young Australians on a picnic in the bush. The men practise football moves and Helpmann drew on the services of Ron Barassi* of Melbourne and then Carlton Football Clubs to coach the dancers for this section of the ballet. In old-fashioned Australian style, the girls rarely interact with the men but sit together, chat and prepare the picnic. We first see the lyrebird, who is named the Male in the list of characters, dancing behind a gauze at the beginning of the ballet. Three main human characters emerge—the Leader of the young men in the group, the Outsider and the Girl. The Girl and the Outsider are attracted to each other but the men have been drinking and inevitably there is a fight over the Girl.

Garth Welch (the Outsider) and Kathleen Gorham (the Girl) in 'The Display', 1964

Garth Welch as the Outsider and Kathleen Gorham as the Girl in The Display, the Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

The girls in the group flee the scene and ultimately the Outsider is left lying on the ground following the aggressive actions of the Leader and his mates. The Girl returns to the scene of the picnic, as does the Outsider, and eventually the Girl is left lying exhausted on the ground following an attempted rape by the Outsider. The Male reappears and, with his tail feathers fully displayed, enfolds the girl into his plumage.

The Display explores themes of hostility and aggression in Australian society and Helpmann recorded that he had attempted to show the brutality that can emerge from gang behaviour. Some of Helpmann’s colleagues have also suggested that elements of the story are autobiographical. William (Bill) Akers, who created the dappled lighting for the ballet, recalled in an oral history interview in 2002 that as a youth Helpmann was thrown into the sea at Bondi by a gang who thought his clothing was ‘sissy’. He was, according to Akers, wearing plus fours at the time. Akers suggested that The Display reflected Helpmann’s feeling that he had always been an outsider in society

The ballet is strongly symbolic and the work’s sexual elements, both overt and suggested, occasionally incurred the wrath of some sections of society. Newspaper clippings in Helpmann’s scrapbooks indicate that, when The Display was shown in Glasgow as part of the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival, the Glasgow Presbytery made attempts to have the ballet banned, a move that was only narrowly defeated.

But the story behind The Display has more to it than what Helpmann and others have recorded to date. In fact, Patrick White was approached to write a scenario for the ballet and a cache of letters, which I chanced upon around ten years ago in a National Library collection, indicated that when White submitted the manuscript it was not to Helpmann’s liking, and not to the liking of the then artistic director, Peggy van Praagh, either. They rejected the manuscript. But what was contained in White’s submission remained an annoying mystery until just recently when, while looking for something else, I chanced upon a manuscript in the National Library entitled ‘A scenario for a ballet by Patrick White’.

What this manuscript reveals is that Helpmann and van Praagh had excellent theatrical reasons for rejecting White’s scenario. White’s story takes place in two separate settings, the Australian bush where initially a picnic takes place, and a ballroom in the country mansion of a family called Brewer. The Brewer daughter, named as the Girl in White’s cast list, is engaged to an Italian Count. The girl has an obsession with a Lyrebird and during the picnic leads the Count into the bush where they encounter the bird. At the end of the ball that takes place in the mansion, the Girl returns to the bush. During this scene it is revealed that she is naked (stage naked) under her black raincoat. She encounters the Lyrebird and with him dances what White calls ‘a dance of consummation’. The Italian Count follows, is enraged at what he sees, rapes the Girl and then strangles her. He is then arrested by a detachment of policemen.

Helpmann may well have given White an initial plot outline as the first excursion into the bush is redolent of Hepburn taking Helpmann with her to visit the sanctuary of the lyrebird, while the nakedness of the Girl when she returns to the forest even recalls Helpmann’s alleged dream. The Italian Count too may well be Helpmann’s Outsider, although he is an outsider on account of his nationality and only partly so by his behaviour as described in the White manuscript.

But despite the fact that Helpmann apparently disliked what White presented, he appears to have borrowed many features of White’s story, including perhaps the gauzes that became part of Helpmann’s production and that lift to reveal the sanctuary of the lyrebird. White’s manuscript contains all kinds of stage directions including directions regarding gauzes.

However, Helpmann, as the remarkable man of the theatre he was, clearly removed the more bizarre and the more literary features from the manuscript he received. ‘When the ballet opens’, writes White, ‘a grotesque fête-galante version of an Australian picnic is about to take place’. He continues, ‘As the dancers appear they have the air of embarking on something reprehensibly unusual. They are inclined to mock at their surroundings and to treat the whole occasion as a huge joke. LADIES are over-dressed in satirical versions of contemporary clothes … The OLDER PERSONNAGES are pompous and would-be refined, the YOUNGER PEOPLE rather gauche, if not hobbledehoy’. In The Display that went onstage in 1964 there are no Italian counts, no feeling of hobbledehoy, no pomposity, no murders, no policemen for example. Helpmann distilled the scenario and in so doing created a story that could be told simply and clearly through dance. White’s elaborate and somewhat convoluted story with its many literary descriptions of events and people was not an easy scenario to translate successfully into dance. Even White’s three suggestions for a title, ‘The stroke of feathers’, ‘The feather breast’, or ‘The double engagement’, have nowhere near the instant attraction of Helpmann’s eventual choice, The Display, an ornithological term referring, in the case of The Display, to the lyrebird’s mating dance.

The Display was not the first all-Australian ballet as Helpmann claimed when speaking to oral historian Hazel de Berg in 1964, but it did have an Australian creative team of the first order. Complementing Helpmann’s choreography were designs by Sidney Nolan and music by Malcolm Williamson. The lighting design by Akers included a number of new initiatives in theatre lighting. The work was visually and aurally evocative and an exceptional collaborative effort. Its strength also partly lay in Helpmann’s ability to create theatre by reducing a story to its essentials.

The ballet was dedicated to Katharine Hepburn but Patrick White’s involvement was, to my knowledge, not mentioned in 1964‒1965 programs and appears not to have been mentioned in published biographies of Helpmann.

© Michelle Potter, 7 July 2012
Please respect my copyright in this article and acknowledge it if the material is used elsewhere.

* Barassi is recorded as saying:  In 1964 I had the great pleasure of coming to know Robert Helpmann through my involvement on his ballet ‘The Display’. In the dance there was quite a lot of football played and Robert asked me to attend rehearsals and advise the ballet dancers on the correct ways of playing Victorian Rules. I did so and although the dancers were impressively athletic, I immediately noticed that they were throwing the football around the room like rugby players. I told Robert this and he was absolutely mortified. From there he worked solidly to get every detail right, as his demand for excellence and accuracy was uncompromising.

Bill ‘Angel’ Akers

While preparing for my recent Spotlight talk at the Arts Centre Melbourne I had occasion to listen to an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 2002 with Bill Akers. One of the many positions Akers held across the course of his very full life was director of productions with the Australian Ballet. He was also an inspired lighting designer, worked in various roles with the Borovansky Ballet and, prior to that, worked in theatre and film and on radio as an actor.

Ultimately, I used an audio clip from the interview in the talk and an audience member commented at the end on how nice it was to hear Bill’s voice again. Well that’s one of the benefits of recording oral history. But apart from anything else he had a beautiful voice. It was deep, generous and cultivated. In his interview he had something to say about that voice, which relates to his first radio appearances:

I became a club leader and gymnasium instructor in the YMCA and one Friday night, having lost the National Table Tennis Championship, I was standing rather dejectedly in the boys’ division and the telephone rang. A man called Bill Arthur, who subsequently became a parliamentarian and went on to join the House of Reprehensibles [sic]—he ran a show called ‘Over to you’, said ‘Look Bill, an actor hasn’t turned up for an interview, would you do it?’

Well, with characteristic reluctance I rushed out of the YMCA, ran down Pitt Street at the rate of knots, rushed round into Market Street and was up in Studio 149 before you could breathe. I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. They shoved a script into my hand and said: ‘Say anything after the letter A’. So I did the interview and I was ‘A’. I didn’t know who ‘A’ was but they would go out and interview a boy who was perhaps an apprentice plumber or an apprentice clerk or something or other and they would get the details of his job and what the prospects were and things like that. And an actor would come in and play that boy on the radio.

Well the following Tuesday they rang me up and said would I do it for a year, so I got a contract. At the end of the year, of course I wanted to go into the theatre and I wrote to Keith Wood who was the director of that program and told him this. And he rang me up and very kindly said to me: ‘Look, Bill, you’re very talented but if you’re going to become an actor, the first thing you have to do is do something about that terrible voice’. Well I did have a voice that was very high at the time and very nasal. So high that only dogs could hear it. It was very nasal and Australian and so on. So he sent me to Bryson Taylor who was a voice production teacher who listened to me for five minutes and said: ‘Have a cup of tea’. And he talked to me for a while and at the end he said: ‘Look, I’m sure you’re very talented but I don’t think anybody could ever do anything with that voice’. I’ve never drunk tea since.

Not long after this Akers became a student at the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art in Sydney and went on to appear on radio in episodes of the Lux Radio Theatre and the Caltex Theatre. He also worked with the John Alden Company playing Shakesperian roles, and with the J. C. Williamson organisation in a variety of productions.

'For better, for worse'. Photo Hal Williamson

Michael Duffield, Bill Akers and Joan Duan in a scene from For better, for worse, 1953. Photo Hal Williamson. Courtesy National Library of Australia

At the request of Harald Bowden of the J. C. Williamson organisation, Akers joined the Borovansky Ballet as assistant stage manager in the 1950s. His interview contains recollections of arriving at the theatre for the first time as ASM, his impressions of Borovansky and his thoughts on the Borovansky Ballet.

I walked through the stage door of Her Majesty’s Theatre at about 11:30 in the morning to be confronted by these fifty raging egos jumping up and down and whirling around in the air. They were rehearsing a ballet called Symphonie fantastique and Mr Borovansky was standing on a chair shouting imprecations at these people. He had a pair of baggy old corduroy slacks on … He had a Chesty Bond’s singlet, rather loosely flapping and ballet slippers and a beret on the back of his head, which fell off as he got down onto the stage.

To me, despite the fact that I think I’ve met lots and lots of very great people in my life—I’ve been very privileged for that—he is the greatest person I think I’ve ever known. I think he contributed more to Australian theatre, particularly to dance, than anybody else. He created a ballet audience. He made ballet in Australia … he was just a fantastic man [with] particular drive and charisma. When you worked with Mr Borovansky you were alive twenty-four hours a day. He was the most stimulating person imaginable.

The Borovansky Ballet was a great big, magnificent, glamorous rough diamond with wonderful ballerinas. Boro virtually created ballet in this country, which is supposed to be a sports minded country, a situation that led at one stage to us having the greatest per capita ballet audience in the world. And that went on for twenty years … In Boro’s day, of course, triple bills were tremendously popular but he knew how to plan them. He was a genius at planning triple bills. He would introduce a new work like Paul Grinwis’ ballet Eternal Lovers. He would sandwich it in between the second act of Swan Lake and Le Beau Danube, which he knew the public adored. His triple bills were wonderful.

Throughout the interview Akers tells many other anecdotes about people he met and people he admired. He has the following to say about Joyce Graeme when she toured in Australia with Ballet Rambert, 1947‒1949:

I’ve seen some magnificent Queens of the Wilis [in Giselle] but there will never be another Queen of the Wilis like Joyce Graeme. She was an icicle. It was just a magical performance. She wasn’t nearly as good a dancer technically as many of the others I’ve seen but the icy chill she brought to the stage … and of course she was very tall and very thin and she was an electric presence on stage.
Joyce Graeme, Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948

Joyce  Graeme in costume for Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.  Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948. Geoffrey Ingram archive of Australian ballet. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

And he recalls the arrival of John Cranko to stage Pineapple Poll for the Borovansky Ballet in 1954:

[Cranko] first came to Australia for Mr Borovansky to stage Pineapple Poll. Wonderful fellow he was. Great sense of humour. And he’d seen Symphonie fantastique the night before. We were all waiting on stage, breathless, for this great, new, young choreographer to arrive. And at five to ten I used to set off the alarm and class used to start promptly at ten … Well Mr Cranko wasn’t there and everybody was standing on stage thinking: ‘He would never dare to be late’. Then the two doors at the back of the theatre flew open and he came screaming across the stage doing grands jetés, which is what started the final movement of Symphonie fantastique. And he got to the centre of the stage and he said ‘Well there you are, I have proved to you that I can dance. Now let’s see if you can’.

And why was Akers called Angel? As he tells the story, during one of his engagements in a musical comedy show a well-known female actor (whom he declined to name) suggested he looked like the devil with his Van Dyke beard. As a result members of  the company started calling him Lucifer, who according to the bible disguised himself as the Angel of Light. ‘Angel Akers’ was the long term result.

Bill Akers died in 2010. The extracts above are a minute part of an interview that documents many aspects of a long and varied career in the theatre. And like all oral history, it’s the voice that encapsulates the man—no longer ‘high and nasal’ but beautifully modulated and able to express in the most amusing way the most serious of endeavours.

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2012.

Here is the link to the National Library catalogue for the Akers interiew. The National Library cataloguers have yet to add Akers’ year of death to the reord. [This has been rectified—MP, 11 May 2012]