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Opera House performance pays tribute to Marta Becket

Last Saturday’s anniversary tribute to legendary dancer Marta Becket at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction can perhaps best be summed up by the numbers.

51: The number of years since Marta Becket debuted her first show at the Amargosa Opera House on Feb 10, 1968. Her decision to stake her claim in the nearly empty desert stunned her friends and the few inhabitants of the Junction at the time, but Becket knew exactly where to draw her creative line in the sand and she danced on it for nearly half a century.

Fifty-one is also the number of years Douglass Pushard, an honored guest at Saturday’s performance, has been attending the shows in this auditorium. Today he is one of the few who remember the transformation of the walls and ceiling into the extraordinary murals painted by Becket between 1968 and 1974.

25: The number of years that Christine Fossemalle, of the Fossemalle Dance Studio in Santa Ynez, California, enjoyed a warm friendship with Marta Becket.

The two women, who bonded over a passionate commitment to a creative life, talked about art, music, dance, and even the ordinary events of their days.

During these conversations, Fossemalle said, she learned what brought her friend joy. When she decided to stage a tribute to Becket, she wanted to bring that joy to life again on the Opera House stage.

20: Approximately the number of Friday nights on which a small group of high-school-age dance students didn’t go out with their friends or spend time on social media. Instead, they volunteered to meet at the Fossemalle Dance Studio to learn, practice, and master dances choreographed in tribute to a legend they never met, but greatly admired.

8: The number of hours the girls practiced in the Opera House last Friday, Feb. 15. The dancers knew they’d have to work hard to tighten their steps for the unusually small stage. They were stunned, they said, when they entered the auditorium for the first time. “I would never have thought of something as enduring and alive in Death Valley,” said dancer Isabelle Hartley, who helped stage manage. “And it is alive.”

7: The number of dancers appearing on Saturday night: Citlaly Alvarado, Sarah Duran, Isabella Hartley, Camryn Kemp, Taylor Kemp, Ella Raffo, and Amanda Russell, all of the Fossemalle Dance Studio.

6: The number of dances performed.

Renovating costumes already available at her studio, Fossemalle and Corona choreographed numbers that told the story of Becket’s life. They ranged from a rousing New York, New York number complete with top hats and canes, to the Stray Cat Strut, to Showboat, to a circus tribute with yellow sunflowers.

Also featured: a classical ballet piece choreographed to an original composition recorded by Becket on the Opera House piano during her lifetime. The finale was an homage to Becket’s favorite composer, Giuseppe Verdi.

3: The number of weeks left before the anniversary celebration when the originally scheduled musical accompaniment fell through and Fossemalle scrambled to find a replacement, culminating in the addition of UNLV ballet pianist Cynthia Miller.

Miller knew Marta Becket, she said, was familiar with the Opera House and loved the music Fossemalle chose.

On Saturday night, Feb. 16, Miller pulled from the ancient Opera House piano bits of music from Becket’s favorite composers, including Chopin, Offenbach, Rossini and Tchaikovsky, and regaled the audience with colorful snippets of classical music history between pieces.

2: The number of trained opera singers who, when Miller invited the audience to join in on “La Donna E Mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, burst forth from the back of the theater in Pavarotti style. Steve Hodgson and Richard Corson, who are part of the Las Vegas Master Singers group, said they didn’t come expecting to perform, but were moved by the magic of the evening.

1: The number of empty seats at the sold-out show. This one seat, in the front row next to Fossemalle, is permanently reserved for the memory of Marta Becket.

Although the chair was empty on Saturday night, said many of those in attendance, they felt as though Becket was with them in spirit. Dancer Hartley agreed. “You feel Marta watching and it’s inspiring. You feel her enduring passion.”

“It felt like she was dancing through us,” added dancer Taylor Kemp.

“We could feel her there with us,” said dancer Amanda Russell. “Backstage we were all a little nervous,” she said, and then she felt suddenly calm. “We’re doing this for her,” Russell remembered thinking, “and she’s going to be proud.”

As part of honoring her friend, Fossemalle also said she was committed to seeing Becket’s dance legacy carry on to future generations. An encore of the anniversary show will be held at the Fossemalle Dance Studio in Santa Ynez on Monday, Feb. 25th, when the dancers will perform for the local community.

Fred Conboy, president of the Amargosa Opera House non-profit foundation board of directors, said he was well pleased with the celebration. It was in keeping, he said, with the Opera House’s goal of bringing “high quality, unusual entertainment to the Opera House stage.”

Other performers scheduled to appear at the Opera House this spring include: Achilles Wheel, Steve Rushingwood, California Celts, Master Mystery Opera Productions, Sin City Opera and the Donna Lamm Dance Studio of Pahrump.

For more details, check the Amargosa Opera House website: http://www.amargosa-opera-house.com/schedule.htm

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California.

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