“The Sitting Down Show” (closing night), Amargosa Opera House, February 12, 2012
The desert ballerina has retired.
Marta Becket, the dedicated performer who brought the Amargosa Opera House back to life with her one-woman dance-mime shows, gave her final public performance on Sunday February 12. Though she no longer can dance, she sat regally on a throne-like chair with costume pieces and props in easy reach, and shared her memories of her life in Death Valley Junction. She acted out real-life characters that populated her adopted town, as well as fictional characters from musicals she had conceived, composed and danced. Her memory was relentless, and her wit fully intact. She demonstrated that her passion for art, music and dance is matched only by her keen observation of people around her and her comedic storytelling. She was luminous, entrancing, and consummately entertaining.
Ms. Becket was a performer in well-known Broadway productions in the 1940s, yet by the late 1950s she felt her artistic options drying up in New York. She created solo shows that toured around the country. In 1968 she inadvertently discovered the abandoned hall at Death Valley Junction when her car got a flat tire nearby. She refurbished the hall over time, painting every inch of the inside with richly-detailed murals of a royal medieval audience.
Ms. Becket labored at her art – including dance, piano, singing, composing, writing, painting – in a place most performers would not feel comfortable. Far from a metropolis, cultural mecca, famous theaters, devoted art lovers, and other artists. She had none of the support upon which most artists thrive or depend – neither from wealthy patrons, nor celebrated dance companies, nor an artistic community. She created her art in the vast openness of Death Valley. Completely alone, entirely un-networked.
She proved that it doesn’t matter where you do it; it matters that you are doing it.
Ms. Becket brought art to the desert, to people who had never seen it before, who never thought they desired to. She planted the seed. It didn’t grow big, but it grew strong and held on, like desert sage brush. Audiences never forgot her shows.
She didn’t let geographic status erode her passion or dilute her vision. She claimed the emptiness of the valley, and the opera house, as her blank canvas. And she created her art on her own terms.
She did what she wanted, where she wanted.
Discarding the group-think of the New York arts crowd (that Manhattan was the only desirable locale for true artists), Ms. Becket asserted a bold notion: art is art, no matter where it’s created.
That insight freed her to explore and express all her talents.
She didn’t need tuxedoed audiences, thousand-seat theaters, employment in world-renowned companies, million-dollar sets — or even a stage crew — to validate her sense of being an artist and performer. She found a space in which to revel in her own creativity and style, unencumbered by the strict expectations of the artistic and show business communities in large cities. As she wrote in her original lyrics, “No longer a slave to theatrical tradition; I’ve found my place in the sun.”
Of course, she was often unencumbered by an audience to see her work. Many nights, when no one came to her scheduled performance, she danced only for the royalty in her hand-painted murals. Yet, she always felt that joy of being onstage. She was happy.
She performed not for money, fame, status or recognition, but for the joy of creating — that transcendent fulfillment that results from planning, rehearsing, creating concepts, constructing sets and props, and coordinating all of it to convey a story of human desire or experience. Like a writer composing a book, she was never sure if anyone would see her work or care for it. Undeterred, she continued to dream and create, because that was what her soul yearned to do.
Ms. Beckett lived her soul.