Sam McManis

Discoveries: Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction

This January 2014 photo shows the interior of the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction,  near the eastern entrance of Death Valley National Park. .
This January 2014 photo shows the interior of the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, near the eastern entrance of Death Valley National Park. . The Associated Press

You congenital high-brows who believe Death Valley is as parched culturally as it is meteorologically really need to get off your high horse and into your SUV and hightail it to this one-pump-of-the-brake-pedal town at the crossroads of highways 190 and 127, where high lonesome meets low desert.

Here, amid the flaking adobe ruins of the (still operating) Amargosa Hotel, where only the exceedingly brave or desperate dare spend the night, resides the Amargosa Opera House, home for five decades to ballerina Marta Becket, a noted New York expat, and her one-woman show. Nearing 90, Becket is too frail these days to grace the stage she built with her own toil and toe shoes, but into the breach has come Jenna McClintock, best known for her years with the Oakland and Richmond (Va.) ballet companies, to perform Becket’s original works, pay homage to her enduring appeal and keep alive a Death Valley tradition.

This is a must-see show, even if your knowledge of ballet and interpretive dance is so minimal that it can be inscribed with a dull pencil on the narrow shank of a wooden barre.

McClintock is a wonderful dancer, moving both with the geometric precision of a Mondrian painting and the fluidity of a swirling van Gogh. But the show, which runs to April, begins well before she graces the stage.

The theater itself, and the story behind its founding, is just as much a draw. At 6:45 on a Saturday night, when doors with white peeling paint fling open and the nine patrons holding thumbnail-size generic blue tickets are admitted, a visual, almost visceral, delight awaits.

Floor to ceiling, the walls are covered with Renaissance-meets-Spanish Colonial murals, deep red and richly ornate someplaces, light blue and ethereal in others, all painted by Becket. Flickering light from flames of the wood stove in the front left corner send shadows off the scuffed and irregularly planked hardwood floor. The stage itself, smooth plywood rubbed bare in spots and cloaked with a red velvet curtain, is lit by overhead spotlights whose shades were made from Folgers coffee cans. The rows of seats, threadbare from years of being exposed to the elements and patrons’ ample backsides, creak with complaint.

But it’s the figures depicted in the mural – actually, it’s one flowing scene, the permanent, if two-dimensional, “audience” at the Opera House – that demands your gaze. There are depictions of Spanish nobility and Louis XIV aristocrats looking down from the gilded balcony in all their finery, the aloof-looking king and queen dead-on center. There are jousters and jesters and bullfighters hoisting goblets, priests and nuns and courtesans, ballerinas milling backstage doing warmup pliés and tenors dressed as Vikings. From the ceiling, circling a golden dome featuring depicting ladies playing antique instruments, float-dancing cherubs being tossed about by the embodiment of the four winds.

None of the theatergoers on this night could stay seated, pre-show. They roam the aisles, taking in the murals.

“Right now,” says Kristina Walker of Washington, D.C., who was staying at the hotel with partner Stephen Zippe, “I’m just giggling as I walk here and see all of this. You wouldn’t expect it here.”

Actually, Randy and Jackie Monge of Orcas Island, Wash., did expect it. They’ve been to Death Valley several times and bought the DVD of the documentary about Becket. But they’d never been here before when a performance is scheduled.

“Incredible lady,” Jackie says. “We have handed the video around to everybody we know, and we have to ask for it back. I’ve been enamored with it and her ever since I watched it. I hear she still lives here. They say she still goes to some of the shows and signs autographs. It would be great if she came tonight.”

With house lights still on, the recorded voice of Becket emits from the speakers, welcoming the crowd and giving the theater’s history and the briefest of outlines of her personal story, which was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary in 2000.

Voice faltering a little with age, but augmented by a mournful cello accompaniment, Becket tells that the theater originally was a “social hall” for workers from the mining company that once toiled in the town and that once the company town moved on, circa 1947, the hall, the hotel and assorted other buildings in town were deserted. She glosses over her career – Broadway chorus line appearances, assorted ballerina roles, choreographed one-woman shows – and her avocation as a painter and moves on to her discovery of Amargosa in 1967, when in her early 40s her ballet career seemingly was in decline.

The gist: She and her then-husband were on vacation in Death Valley’s Furnace Creek campground when they had a flat tire. The nearest service was 30 miles east in Death Valley Junction. Nosing about town while the tire was changed, Becket stumbled upon the auditorium, poked her head through the hole in the back door and saw her future. She left New York for good and paid the owner $45 a month to rent the theater, as is, sans roof and infested with native kangaroo rats. A year later, she opened the rechristened Amargosa Opera House, where until 2013 she danced en pointe to classical music, weaving stories in movement to entertain the few locals and the curious among Death Valley tourists. On nights when no one showed, she danced to the “Audience” in the murals.

Lights dim, and McClintock then takes the stage to re-create a Becket selection. She wears a frilly and frothy white costume and pirouettes and kicks to the fervent strains of violins and cellos, her back arched against the painted backdrop of the Amargosa Hotel’s colonnade. After the piece, the curtain falls and it takes the audience a beat to commence applauding, but it is prolonged and spirited. Two pieces later, McClintock walks to the foot of the stage to address the audience.

“I discovered ballet from Marta Becket about 33 years ago when I was 6 years old, camping here with my family,” McClintock says. “We stumbled upon a sign: performance tonight. We came to see her show. Marta put on quite a show that evening. She was dancing en pointe. I’d never forget it. She was in a red tutu, levitating on stage. To my eyes, she was floating on top of the stage. From that night on, I decided I’d be a ballerina. I had a great, long career. I’m retired from company work now, and I’ve come back … to Marta to make sure her work still lives on. Obviously, her murals will live on forever. They keep this theater alive even though this stage has been dormant. Now, I want the stage to be alive as well.”

McClintock finished with an excerpt from a ballet she herself is developing, called “Dream Weaving.” To rousing applause from all nine in attendance, she bowed as the curtain closed and production manager, Gregory Perez, thanks the audience for attending.

Becket, who lives at the hotel but is having health issues, is a no-show for this performance, but McClintock seems the next best thing. She, too, has discovered Death Valley Junction late in her ballet career. She says she sought out Becket in 2010 to thank her for inspiring her own career.

“Marta just stared at me and said. ‘You can do this, too,’” McClintock says. “And it just stung in my ear. I came back in 2014, and I said, ‘Hey my life ain’t working out retiring.’ I asked, ‘what’s going on here?”’and nothing was. So here we are. And she is just such a soul sister, such kindred spirit that it wasn’t really like I’m Jenna out there (on the stage).”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

AMARGOSA OPERA HOUSE

What: “A Tribute to Marta Becket,” featuring Jenna McClintock

When: 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; at least through March

Cost: $20

Information: (766) 852-4441, www.amargosa-opera-house.com

To see Jenna McClintock dancing at the Margosa Opera House, go to sacbee.com/travel.

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