'To Dance on Sands: The Life And Art of Death Valley's Marta Becket'
Book Review by Dean Speer
While we tend we think of a ballet career as a group activity, there are and have been those who have found their artistic voice alone and apart. Nelle Fisher is an example, who, after having been with the Graham Company from 1937-41, worked then in Broadway musicals but later became a solo dancer, making and performing dances on television and in other venues. Thalia Mara (USA International Ballet Competition founder) and her husband each had solo careers, touring concert programs, as well as a duet act for many years, after having performed with various companies and groups.
Marta Becket is such an artist and marvelously chronicles her journey to find her artistic voice in her newly published autobiography, “To Dance On Sands” (2006, Stephens Press, LLC). Not only is she an accomplished dancer, she also plays the piano and composes music, paints, and draws. Most famously, she painted the walls of her opera house in Death Valley Junction, California with people of the Renaissance era, which provides a built-in full house for all of her shows.
Her story has been profiled as early as 1970 by “National Geographic,” “Life” magazine, NBC, and later “Dance Magazine.” In the late 1990s, a documentary was filmed about her life and released in 2000 – “Amargosa,” which was nominated for an Oscar.
Now, she can certainly add writing to her list of accomplishments. She is smart in telling a story rather than giving us a tedious, diary-like recounting. I felt like I was on her journey with her. I was taken with how she realized early in her life that she wanted to dance but couldn’t get lessons until nearly too late. The saga of how she and her mother watched classes at a handful of New York ballet schools, including the School of American Ballet, trying to figure out why her current teacher was apparently not giving her what she needed, was moving as well as familiar – to which so many can easily relate.
I was crushed along with her when, during practice one day, she found she could no longer do one of her favorite steps – fouettés – as her supporting leg wouldn’t hold up. I empathized with her creative spirit. This woman just did not give up – nor does she now, with shows booked for 2006-07. Her dances are what she herself describes as “dance-pantomimes.”
Like Fisher and Mara, Becket had some group performing experiences, including being in the Radio City Music Hall ballet company. She found, through much trial-and-error, that she was happiest making her own dances, her own stories, her own scenery and costumes, and sometimes, her own music.
She did the college concert circuit as well as community arts performances for many years, and it was on one of these extended treks passing through the Las Vegas area that they happened upon the neglected opera house in Death Valley Junction. I love how she tells of how this building seemed to cry to her: “Take me. Do something with me. I offer you life.”
I read her book on the plane going and coming to the USA International Ballet Competition and the time and miles just flew by. I had initially expected the bulk of the book to have been about her opera house in Death Valley Junction, but was delightfully surprised that it is about her entire life’s journey which led her to where she is now. I, for one, feel moved and compelled to see this artistic phenomenon for myself and am hoping to do so in the not-too-distant future.
Very well written, Becket has a mind and eye for telling her audience a story. I highly recommend it. You’ll find yourself transported to another world – one that has gone by (community concerts and solo tours) – to one that is currently playing to sold-out and rapt audiences amongst the sands of the California desert.
To Dance on Sands: The Life and Art of Death Valley's Marta Becket. Marta Becket and Ginger Mikkelsen. Stephen's Press, 2006. ISBN 193217334X
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