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Desert Companion

Dancer in the sands

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Encore: Jenna McClintock, left, and Marta Becket
Photography by Jenna Dosch

Encore: Jenna McClintock, left, and Marta Becket

At the Amargosa Opera House, a new talent carries on the tradition begun decades ago by visionary ballerina Marta Becket 

A ghost glides and twirls across the desert sands at dusk. A ballerina dances on a stage of crumbling adobe — the fossil of a former mining town fading like a mirage.

These paintings on the walls could have foretold a desolate future for the Amargosa Opera House, the home and stage of Marta Becket since 1967. For decades, this strangely serene outpost at Death Valley Junction has been the site of Becket’s one-woman ballet recitals. The story of the eccentric ballerina performing in the middle of nowhere — in a theater with a painted “audience” of Renaissance-era figures, from kings and queens to courtiers — has become a legend of the Southwest. But Becket is 91, the stage dark for years.

Little did Becket know that not only had she inspired a 6-year-old tourist to become a ballerina — but that same dancer would return to the Amargosa Opera House decades later. She, too, would uproot a professional career and flee the comforts of city life, beckoned by desert dreams of pure artistic expression in a town of five.

Today, before an audience of 10, Jenna McClintock performs a mesmerizing show — a set of Becket’s classical selections sprinkled with her own. Afterward, a man approaches Becket, who is sitting in the front row, and says, “You inspire me.”

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McClintock felt this same inspiration decades earlier, when she had seen Becket perform for the first time.

“What I remember most was I thought, ‘How is she floating off the ground?’”

McClintock says. “That was it. My soul had been sold to the dance gods.”

That 6-year-old girl returned home, staring at souvenir pictures of Marta every night. McClintock joined the Oakland Ballet at 14, later performing in Richmond and Chicago. By her late 30s, however, she had grown unhappy with the stresses of life in the Bay Area, and tired of competing with younger ballerinas. Around this time, she came across an article about how Becket was still dancing well into her 80s. McClintock decided the time was right to thank Becket in person for capturing her childhood imagination. She returned in 2010 when Becket was putting on her last show, age and frailty requiring her to perform while sitting. After the curtains closed, McClintock approached Becket, weeping.

“’Because of you, I’ve had the most magical life,’” McClintock recalls telling her. “She just stared at me, grabbed my hand and said, ‘You can do this too.’ I wasn’t sure if she meant here.”

 

‘These characters have become my friends’

By 2014, McClintock was studying Becket’s routines and mending her costumes. And after four years of darkness, the Amargosa stage lit up again. Jenna had found her footing and her home, trading a theater that seats 2,500 for one that can house 120.

“These characters on the walls have become my friends,” she says. “I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin. It feels like fate.”

That same sense of destiny has marked Becket’s life. It took her from performing at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway to a West Coast solo tour, when a flat tire left Becket and her husband stranded in Death Valley. At the time, the community of Death Valley Junction housed a smattering of local businesses, including an auto repair.

It didn’t seem to have much else at first. Encouraged by a keen sense of wanderlust, Becket meandered through the skeleton of a town left behind when the Pacific Borax Company vacated in 1947. Peeping through a hole in a door, she spied a decaying theater. What the town manager saw as an eyesore brimming with rodents, she viewed as a blank canvas. She promptly informed her stunned husband she wanted to stay.

Becket delivered her first performance in 1968, curiosity luring an audience of ranchers, cowboys and even the Ash Meadows brothel madam. The townspeople often regarded her as an eccentric, but word of her performances soon spread beyond Death Valley. Yet, sometimes her audience was as barren as a salt flat, a problem she solved by creating her own. She spent years painting the theater. Since its completion in 1974, the walls have featured members from every economic strata of Renaissance-era society — from royalty to merchants to ladies of the night. Native Americans provide a link to the local past.

 “Painting the murals were the happiest years of my life,” Becket says. “I was always very thankful to have this building in which to paint my dreams. I feel as if it was waiting for me.”

But she also had her share of nightmares — a difficult divorce, theater flooding and maintenance problems, arguments with management after she bought the town. Yet, through it all, Becket has been resolute in following her muse.

While Becket is extremely grateful and complimentary of McClintock — who is building on her legacy — her tears following McClintock’s performance betray an upwelling of grief.

“I have to admit it’s kind of heartbreaking to hand your creation, that you gave birth to, to someone else,” Becket says. “When I was performing for some 40 years, I’d always hang up my costumes and put my props away and be alone in the theater I created. I remember looking back at my mural, knowing one day would be the last one.”

McClintock understands. “No one can know how painful it is,” she says. “But she has to let her creation go in order for it to live on.”

 

Eternal and endangered

This former mining town seems at once both eternal and endangered. The opera house survives as a non-profit trust on the meager income generated from performances, tours and its 15 antique hotel rooms. The staff of eight fights a constant battle against the elements and age, incessantly repairing walls and roofs. Meanwhile, they forge ahead with plans to re-open a shuttered restaurant and renovate the dilapidated bungalows surrounding the hotel. Yes, donations of money, time and talent are desperately needed, including building repair, a nonprofit lawyer and an accountant. McClintock estimates they require at least $10,000 to protect one wall of the theater from the rain.

“I just spackled the dickens out of Room 18,” McClintock says. “I want to get my hands on every hotel room. Last year I tried to paint during the day and perform at night.”

That captures the ethos of daily life at Death Valley Junction. Every employee pitches in to do everything; they have to, in order to realize McClintock’s vision.

“We’d love to just expand the town — have a café, a consignment shop to sell the work of local artisans, a farmers market,” she says. “I’d love to use some of this space to develop a dance school and pickup ballet company.”

Behind the hotel is a vista of the mountains surrounding Death Valley. At dusk, a herd of wild horses scampers to the property’s edge, one eager animal nuzzling McClintock. The hotel workers provide them with an enticing supply of hay, making the horses regular guests as well. After they abruptly gallop away into the encroaching darkness, it seems like a good time to peer into the seldom-seen portions of the property.

One of the largest abandoned sections lurks behind a strategically placed mirror, which masks a door. Inside is a miner’s barracks, unused since 1947; in room after room, our flashlights illuminate sinks, desks and toilets etched in ancient grime. Then, something out of place: a teddy bear perched on a small chair. It was planted there by the producers of a paranormal TV show a few years back — an unnecessary touch in a place where some employees discuss their ghostly interactions with an air of nonchalance. McClintock thinks she may have encountered an irritated spirit right after swiping a nightstand from the barracks.

“I was just sitting there next to the nightstand, and my window flies up, scaring the bejeebers out of me,” she says. “I told them I meant no harm and was just trying to recycle the nightstand.”

More than traditional ghosts, though, there is a spirit to Death Valley Junction that pulls people in. Amargosa Opera House is a place at once both timeless and ensconced in the past — a setting where years unspool slowly across the decades. As though proudly detached from modernity, the rooms don’t have TVs and often lack Internet. There’s only one electrical outlet in each room. The dearth of cell phone service reminds you that you’re here for an experience.

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Armagosa Opera House
Photography by Jenna Dosch

The art of movement: Outside and inside the Armagosa Opera House, where McClintock carries on a tradition of dance.

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The art of movement: Outside and inside the Armagosa Opera House, where McClintock carries on a tradition of dance.
Photography by Jenna Dosch

The art of movement: Outside and inside the Armagosa Opera House, where McClintock carries on a tradition of dance.

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The art of movement: Outside and inside the Armagosa Opera House, where McClintock carries on a tradition of dance.
Photography by Jenna Dosch

The art of movement: Outside and inside the Armagosa Opera House, where McClintock carries on a tradition of dance.

‘I felt like I was coming home’

One man stopped here for a glass of water eight years ago. Now he lives on the grounds as the head maintenance worker. Photographer Bobbi Fabian experienced a similar courtship. She stumbled upon the place during a road trip, as the self-proclaimed Australian coffee snob sought a boost. One of the workers made her a “really good” cappuccino from a vending machine. That endearing taste of life here prompted her and her friend to rendezvous annually in Amargosa for the next 12 years.

“There’s something about Death Valley and especially this place — every year I felt like I was coming home,” Fabian says.

In 2014, the L.A.-based photographer met McClintock, and discussed making her annual stay more than temporary. She decided to quit her job so she could renovate the moribund café.

“I kind of felt the energy shifted here,” Fabian says. “Marta’s work was being carried on in a way it never had been before. I wanted to help out someplace that was bigger than me.”

For the first time, the restaurant’s revenue will go back into the nonprofit corporation that manages the town. Fabian has immersed herself in remodeling the shuttered eatery and acquiring all the necessary equipment to produce a menu built on locally sourced food. Fabian says the stresses of her job and city life in L.A. gave her the final nudge toward the desert, and convinced her to exchange her camera for a spatula. (But she’s no novice in the kitchen: Fabian developed her culinary skills from years of food photography and hosting dinner parties to raise money for her work visas.)

“When I was thinking about the café and changing my life, it really scared me, and that’s why I felt I should do it,” she says.

She envisions the restaurant being partially supplied by its own garden and chickens. She also hopes to collaborate with Becket on a painted mural in the café, which she expects to open within the next two months.

“I’ve been traveling around the desert for a long time, and finding an oasis in the middle of nowhere with really good food makes you so happy when it happens,” she says. “It’s going to be a place to bring the community together.”

As her restaurant ideas take shape, she’s also been getting tourists involved, including a nonprofit restoration architect who happened to be traveling through. She’s trying to track down the property’s original building plans in hopes of a full restoration someday. When not in the café or her future apartment, Fabian helps McClintock with lighting her stage show and drawing the curtains.

 

A surreal silence

The enthusiasm of these new desert-dwellers permeates this unexpected encore of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel.

“I’ve been having hopes and dreams Jenna will carry it on as long as I did,” Becket says. “I’m a great believer in preserving the past because we can learn from the past. We can’t learn from the future.”

And McClintock is clearly an eager pupil. She spends hours watching ballet with Becket and crafting her next piece about a magical bakery, with selections from Becket’s personal music library.

“She’s done such a beautiful job here,” Becket says. “She uses the stage the way I used to. She’s keeping the place alive.”

Initially, McClintock’s family and friends could scarcely believe that a place like the Amargosa Opera House existed. Upon seeing it was real, they expressed relief.

“I’m such a fanatic dancer, they would ask, ‘What are you going to do when you can’t dance anymore?’ ” McClintock says. Now she’s finally found her answer. With a radiant grin, she says, “I can dance till I’m 80, apparently.”

As Fabian says, there’s something about the passage of time here that you don’t quite expect. Its mystery could lie in the sweeping sunsets or the surreal silence that breeds creativity. “It moves slowly and fast at the same time,” Fabian says.

With her paintbrush, Becket had once depicted images of the Opera House’s creeping disintegration into the desert.

“She painted that it would kind of blow away in the wind,” McClintock says. But now, it appears that the opera house — once depicted in paintings as crumbling in the sands — has a strong new foundation. 

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