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Dust devil

9 minutes

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Why a Broadway dancer started her own theatre in the Mojave Desert

‘I’ve wrapped myself up in my world, and I’m gonna keep it as long as I can.’

Born in New York City in 1924 and growing up amid the Great Depression, Marta Becket found respite at the theatre, where she immersed in ‘a ball that protected me from the ugliness of the outside world’. She would soon become an accomplished performer herself, appearing as a dancer on Broadway and a ballerina at Radio City Music Hall, but later found herself growing tired of appearing in productions over which she had no artistic control. Looking to ‘strike out on her own’, Becket began raising money for her own productions, culminating in a tour of a one-woman show.

It was on this tour in 1967, while passing through the near-abandoned town of Death Valley Junction in California, that Becket would unexpectedly find a new life in the desert. Stopping to glance into a dilapidated, defunct social hall, she imagined a new world for herself there, with far fewer people but unbound artistic freedom. She started bringing her vision to life almost instantly, uprooting from New York City to transform the social hall into the Amargosa Opera House – a small theatre that she and her then-husband renovated and rented at a rate of $45 a month.

At first – no surprise – audiences were sparse, and Becket sometimes even found herself performing to no one but the Renaissance characters that populated the murals on her theatre’s walls. But in the ensuing years, the Amargosa Opera House would become a place of legend, with the peculiar outpost attracting full houses of tourists and locals alike, and helping to revitalise the town. It was a sanctuary that she inhabited for more than four decades, until her final performance in 2012. And although Becket died in 2017, today the Amargosa Opera House continues to operate as a nonprofit theatre, hotel and café.

The short documentary Dust Devil finds Becket approaching the end of her life, reflecting on the transcendent moments that performing at the Amargosa Opera House brought her, and considering what the future might hold for the theatre. Working from archival footage, glimpses of the theatre today and scenes from the barren Mojave Desert, the Australian filmmaker Poppy Walker builds an enchanting portrait. There’s a sparse and surreal beauty to it – a fitting tribute to a dream built on a whim in the middle of nowhere.

Director: Poppy Walker

Website: HW Collective

10 February 2021