Dancing with the stars

He danced from the back streets of South Dunedin, through the Depression, and all the way to Covent Garden. And he gleefully courted controversy most of the way. Nigel Benson meets Harold Robinson.

Harold Robinson moves slowly these days. But his eyes still dance.

And he wears a satisfied smile, after what has been a most extraordinary life.

The 89-year-old ("I'm 90 in January," he beams, with all the enthusiasm of a 9-year-old about to turn 10) returned to Dunedin last weekend for only the second time since he left during World War 2.

Robinson grew up at 18 Richardson St, South Dunedin, later attending St Clair School and King Edward Technical College.

It was a tough time to be growing up, as the optimism of the 1920s gave way to the Depression of the '30s, and even tougher for a South Dunedin boy who was passionate about "fancy dancing", as ballet was disparagingly known.

Robinson's theatrical talent was encouraged by his mother from an early age and as a 10-year-old boy soprano he was selected to tour Australia with the Westminster Glee Singers.

He was also an enthusiastic member of the Dunedin Shakespeare Club, Otago Repertory Company and Lily Steven's dance studio in Rattray St.

In 1939, when he was 19, the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo visited Dunedin and Robinson's talent caught the eye of male lead Anton Dolin.

"But, in those days, in spite of my theatrical activities, I was inspired to take holy orders," he says.

"I was drenched in holy blood. But they were very strait-laced, the Church of England," he says, smiling.

Robinson would regularly ride a bicycle to Seacliff to take Sunday school there.

"I still have my lay reader's licence."

All such considerations were put to one side when he was called up to the army in 1941.

The next four years were spent serving with the 36th Battalion in the Pacific and the 3rd Division in Egypt.

For some time he served as batman to Sir John Marshall, who later became prime minister of New Zealand.

"He was the soul of rectitude and correct Presbyterian standards," Robinson recalls.

"I remember him saying once to me: 'There is no wine like a glass of cold water' and I thought 'To hell with that', but I didn't contradict him because that would have been rude."

The pair had a close friendship for an officer and batman.

"He called me Robbie and I called him Marshie, but there was never any over-familiarity in the address."