Born 1931 in Staffordshire, England; Died 2016 in New York City
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, 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, 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 Heeley was hired to design Hamlet at the new Festival Theatre for the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This led Heeley to design dozens of other productions for the Stratford Festival, as well as theatre, ballet, and opera companies worldwide.
Between 1966 and 1993, Heeley designed the sets and costumes for seven productions for The National Ballet of Canada. Each production features the acute attention to detail typical of 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.
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 Heeley’s innovative use of unusual materials, such as using coat hangers and plastic glasses to create chandeliers.
View the exhibit
Swan Lake (1967)
Swan Lake (1979)
Sylvia Pas de Deux (1984)
Oiseaux Exotiques (1984)
Don Quixote (1985)
The Merry Widow (1986)
La Sylphide (1993)
Top image credit: The National Ballet of Canada tutus on display. Photo by Setareh Sarmadi.