Vale Desmond Heeley, the man who, in his own words, made “dross into gold”

Desmond Heeley, the English stage designer who worked with Ballet Rambert, the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet, John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, and Robert Helpmann has died in New York at the age of 85.

Based in New York for many years he also designed for the National Ballet of Canada and, for Houston Ballet, designed the sets and costumes for Ben Stevenson’s production of The Sleeping Beauty.

Obituaries for Heeley, who died on 10 June 2016, indicated that he had no close relatives.

His partner, the Broadway and musical theatre composer, Lance Mulcahy, died in New York in 1995.

Through his friendship with Helpmann and relationship with Mulcahy, Heeley had a strong connection to Australia.

Working with Helpmann, he designed the sets and costumes for the Australian Ballet’s The Merry Widow.

Mulcahy was an Australian. Born in Sydney in 1931, he began his life in the theatre when he took part in the University of City revues and then with his designs for the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney.

Heeley was born in Staffordshire in England in the same year as Mulhaly and and was adopted when he was a baby.

His adoptive mother didn’t support the path he chose, declaring that art and theatre were “the way of the devil”.

When Heeley was in his early teens a teacher at his school noticed some of his drawings and sent them to a local art school.

The art school then awarded him a four-month scholarship.

His adoptive mother was not impressed. She was, Heeley once said, “appalled at the prospect of my becoming a painter. All she could see was wicked dope fiends in my future, and she absolutely forbade me to accept the scholarship.”

Aged 14, Heeley left school and began his future career as an artist.

He began his career as an apprentice in the props department of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.

That start eventually led to a commission by Peter Brook who asked him to design the costumes for Jean Anouilh’s play, The Lark in London in 1955.

Heeley’s connection with Helpmann began at the Old Vic in London in the mid 1950s when Helpmann acted in productions of Shakespeare’s plays directed by both Helpmann’s partner, Michael Benthall, and another Michael – Michael Langham who often worked with Heeley as his designer.

Heeley’s designs for ballet began in 1956 with MacMillan’s Solitaire followed by Cranko’s Prince of the Pagodas in 1957.

In 1965, just before Helpmann was appointed co-director of the Australian Ballet, he asked Heeley to design the costumes for the ballet Yugen.

A decade later, Helpmann asked him to design The Merry Widow, a popular ballet still in the repertoire of several companies and still looking as luscious as ever.

In Melbourne in 1975 the original cast was: Marilyn Rowe (Hanna), John Meehan (Danilo), Lucette Aldous (Valencienne), Kelvin Coe (Camille), Colin Peasley (Baron Mirko Zeta) and Ray Powell (Njegus).

Guesting with the Australian Ballet Margot Fonteyn played the role of Hanna in New York the following year.

Heeley also designed the sets for Stars of World Ballet, a 1978 gala production by Robert Helpmann and Michael Edgley.

The six-week tour to five capital cities in Australia featured dancers from the Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Dusseldorf Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Among the dancers were Margot Fonteyn, Cynthia Gregory, Maina Gielgud, who performed the solo, Squeaky Door, and the Australians John Meehan and Danilo Radojevic.

Although he spent much of his life working at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, Heeley continued to work in the United Kingdom and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

In New York he also designed two musicals, Brigadoon for the New York City Opera and Camelot for Broadway.

Heeley won three Tony Awards, two of them for a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1968, and the third for a 2011 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Sketches for his costume and set designs for Yugen and for the costumes of Hanna in The Merry Widow are held in the Arts Centre Melbourne Performing Arts Collection.

In 1997 an exhibition of his work in Ontario was titled “Dross into Gold: The Theatre Alchemy of Desmond Heeley”.

Unfortunately the catalogue of the exhibition is no longer in print although it may be available to buy from second hand book sellers.