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Death Valley Ballet Dancer Marta Becket Turns 91

The Amargosa Opera House founder has been dancing in the desert for the last 48 years.

by Heidi Harrington-Johnson
Aug 7 2015, 4:40pm

Posters, drawings and photographs of Marta Becket performing at the Amargosa Opera House. All images by the author

Ballet, like all dance, is a living art form; the amalgamation of mind-body impulse, a vocabulary of movement made meticulously to music, a way of telling stories. Unless captured by paint and brush— most famously by Edgar Degas, or on film as Wim Wenders did with Pina Bausch in 3D, or in photography and on buildings, as the street artist JR has done recently in his collaboration with the New York City Ballet — the dance itself is lost to time and relegated to memory.

“Dance cannot exist without dance design: choreography. But dance is the dancer,” Susan Sontag writes in Dancer and the Dance. “A great dancer is not just performing (a role) but being (a dancer).” This begs the question then: what happens to being (a dancer) when they stop performing (a role)? The art form continues, as evidenced by film’s like Wenders’ Pina or JR’s Les Bosquets, but does the dancer cease to be great — do they cease to be at all?

Marta Becket started dancing in New York she when was 14, eventually dancing in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway. It was a late start compared to most dancers, who begin their careers before the age of 10 and retire in their early 30’s, according to a study done in 2004, due to the intense rigors of a profession that demands constant physical and performance-based perfection. Becket retired late too, three years ago at the age of 88. She gave her last performance on a stage she found 40 miles south-east of Death Valley, in the Californian Mojave Desert, the lowest, hottest, and driest spot in North America.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Ca.

It took her six years to paint the Renaissance-style audience reminiscent of ballet’s 15th century Italian origins on the Amargosa Opera House’s ceiling and three interior walls. Having discovered the disused recreation hall in 1967 while holidaying in the desert, with a monthly payment of $45, she made it and the adjoining U-shaped hotel her own. Becket was 43 at the time, a decade past her dancing sell-by date. “When I first came, I was to many, the crazy lady who moved out into the middle of the desert to run an opera house,” she says. “To many I am not crazy anymore.”

When we drove into the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel’s deserted parking lot, the temperature on the rental car dashboard read 114 degrees and the sign we had passed on the city’s limit read, "Population 4". Frequently listed as one of the U.S.’s most haunted locations, we were not here in search of ghosts but to visit Death Valley’s forgotten mining towns, Michelangelo Antonioni’s famed Zabriskie Point, and Becket’s Opera House, where she had danced alone for so many years—to the theater’s 120 empty seats, the $1.50 donation tin remaining empty by the door.

A section of Marta Becket’s mural inside the Amargosa Opera House.

In an age obsessed with celebrity and fixated on youth, Becket’s passionate pursuit of her art for its own sake, whether or not it was profitable or anyone was watching, and even her perceived self-imposed exile, have become folklore. As her painted audience grew to include patrons from around the world, she wrote her autobiography and a documentary made about her life won an Emmy Award. The decision to take control of her destiny, despite belonging to a world with strict requirements concerning physicality and conformity, means the stories she tells are her own. 

This month, Becket and her Opera House celebrate their 91st birthday, their joint-fate sealed almost 50 years ago when she peered through a hole in its abandoned door. In the small dressing room backstage, her feather boa hangs limp between wrinkled, brightly colored costumes. Cassettes labeled “Verdi” and one, “The Farewell Letter,” in handwritten capitals, stack haphazardly behind the stage curtains. Nearby, a blue fly swatter dangles from the wall and above it a small note, “The DANCE reaches its most beautiful form with those who treat it as an ART.” Marta Becket, because of her love of dance and performance, will endure after all.  

Amargosa Opera House and Hotel.

Marta Becket performing one of her “Sitting Down Shows” in 2011. Video courtesy of Dirk Meyer:

Video courtesy of Dirk Meyer

Click here to learn more about the Amargosa Opera House. 

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