In Memoriam

Desmond Heeley

(1931 to 2016)

The National Ballet of Canada mourns the death of Desmond Heeley. Mr. Heeley passed away at the age of 85 in New York City on June 10. Over his storied career, Mr. Heeley designed seven ballets for the National Ballet, including Giselle, Don Quixote and La Sylphide. 

Born 1931 in Staffordshire, England, with a career rooted in Shakespearean theatre, Desmond Heeley became an influential designer not only for the dramatic stage but also for ballet and opera. As a young man in England, Mr. Heeley was fascinated by stage design. His first opportunity to work in theatre design was as an apprentice for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s production of King Lear. After further experience in wardrobe at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Mr. Heeley’s career as a designer took off when celebrated director Peter Brook invited him to work on his productions of Anouilh’s The Lark and Titus Andronicus starring Sir Laurence Olivier in 1955. 

Having established his name in Britain as a notable emerging designer, in 1957 Mr. Heeley was hired to design Hamlet at the new Festival Theatre for the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This led Mr. Heeley to design dozens of other productions for the Stratford Festival, as well as theatre, ballet, and opera companies worldwide. 

Between 1966 and 1993, Mr. Heeley designed the sets and costumes for seven productions for the National Ballet. Each production features the acute attention to detail typical of Mr. Heeley’s style, which allows him to dramatically transform the stage into another time and place. For example, his designs for the 1986 production of The Merry Widow burst from the stage, conveying extravagant scenes of Paris in 1905 through gilded ballrooms in the fictional Pontevedrian Embassy and the lush gardens of Hanna Glawari’s villa. This production of The Merry Widow, featuring choreography by Ronald Hynd, remains in the company’s current repertoire. 

Mr. Heeley’s encyclopedic knowledge of materials and their visual effects informs his frequent use of “found objects” to create a captivating scene onstage. From early on, colleagues and reviewers have remarked on Mr. Heeley’s innovative use of unusual materials, such as using coat hangers and plastic glasses to create chandeliers. 

Mr. Heeley designed Swan Lake for the National Ballet in 1967. From beginning to end, this production of Swan Lake was extravagant with gorgeous costumes and stylish settings, full of gloomy splendor. The costumes from this production were redesigned by Mr. Heeley in 1979. 

In 1970 Sir Peter Wright’s Giselle entered the repertoire of the National Ballet featuring sets and costumes designed by Mr. Heeley. The Wilis in Act II wear disintegrating Victorian style wedding gowns trimmed with dying roses which have been soiled from years of haunting their woodland home. These costumes featured Mr. Heeley’s trademark hand-painted designs. Colleagues have noted that Mr. Heeley enjoyed a hands-on approach to the productions he designed and often assisted with the painting on the costumes and sets. 

In 1985, Mr. Heeley designed the sets and costumes for Don Quixote, based on the epic novel by Miguel de Cervantes. A stylized adaptation of historical Spanish dress, the tutu was interpreted to better reveal the dancer’s footwork, as with all classical tutus. 

Over the course of his decades-long career, Mr. Heeley was recognized for his contributions to stage design. In 1968 he won two Tony Awards for scenic and costume design for the Royal National Theatre’s Broadway run of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Another Tony followed in 2011 for his costume design for The Importance of Being Earnest. Most recently, he was awarded the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design in 2013.

Heeley Obit