romance was born and bat for lashes unite in a film inspired by a ballerina from death valley
Rachael Pony Cassells made 'Tecopa' after learning of the 90 year old dancer Marta Becket in her remote Opera House in the desert.
Rachael Pony Cassells self portrait
Rachael Pony Cassells is a photographer, director and writer who admits to being at her most creative in the middle of the night. Much of her work from the last decade has been shot between 10PM and 2AM and is characteristically dark, grainy and full of mystery. Her subjects tend to be caught in the shadows, fragile but stoic and lost in moments of deep contemplation.
Australian-born and based in L.A, Rachael describes her work as 'portrait-based narrative'. She is drawn to compelling stories and fascinating biographies, weaving the threads of these into her own work. Rather than retelling these stories, Rachel takes inspiration from them, honouring them through her interpretation. Her most recent project is a video showcasing Romance Was Born's latest collection, Queen of the Night. Named after the location of the shoot - a town in the Mojave desert called Tecopa - this is a short movie with a long and fascinating back story. Featuring her friend Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) and a couple of dancers integral to the story, Tecopa is inspired by the life of an eccentric dancer and artist named Marta Becket, who performed in the desert for over forty years but passed away just before the film was released.
We caught up with Rachael to discuss the story behind her movie and her work's devotion to narrative.
Tecopa, Rachael Pony Cassells
Your film for Romance Was Born is so striking, how did you come to make it?
Rachael: I met Anna and Luke almost ten years ago when I photographed them for a magazine in Sydney. Tecopa came about when I went into the desert last year to shoot the incredible wild flower blooms that had come out after some rare, heavy rain. In typical fashion we left late and got a bit lost and found ourselves in the middle of Death Valley without phone reception or light. At that moment we saw this light shimmering on the horizon ahead in the distance and discovered this amazing hotel and opera house in the middle of nowhere. It's one of my all time favourite memories. What we had found was the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, an old building with eight to ten rooms and next to it a tiny opera house, which can seat no more than 100 people. The first people I thought of were Anna from Romance Was Born and Natasha Khan.
What an amazing find. The place has an interesting history right?
The Opera House was built by an amazing dancer named Marta Becket in the shell of a town hall in a 1920s adobe miners hotel. She was on a road trip with her husband in 1967 when their car broke down at the site. Marta was immediately, spiritually magnetised to the area and while they waited for their car to be repaired, they negotiated a lease and moved to the desert permanently. Her husband left at some point but she danced there for over four decades.
It seems so isolated. Who would Marta dance for?
Well, she didn't have anyone to dance for originally so she painted an audience for herself on the walls of the opera house. This audience included all sorts of characters including town prostitutes, who she gave better seats to than the judges and police. Eventually her story got out and Marta began to draw real audiences to her shows. It's such an incredible story. Sadly she passed away at 92, two weeks before we shot our video.
How sad. Who is dancing in the video then?
Natasha Kahn and I have spent a lot of time in the desert together and she has a good relationship with Romance so it made sense that she was in it. The dancer in the second half is Jenna McClintock who, on a road trip with her parents when she was six years old, saw one of Marta's performances. Like Marta before her, she was hooked on the place immediately. Right at that moment the flame was passed and she structured her life around returning to the desert to dance too.
So the video is like an ode to Marta and her opera house. You didn't shoot at the opera house though?
She inspired the film but it didn't feel right filming there after her death. Since I was very young I have had interesting experiences with death, sometimes very intense premonitions, and have always found the immediate time after someone has passed to have very potent energy. I always think of the deceased spirit's presence blowing in the wind. When we were filming this, the wind was blowing in the direction from Marta Becket's opera house to us a few miles away in Tecopa. We were all openly experiencing her energy and spirit on the wind. My intention was definitely not to try to include the entire backstory into my little film, more to document my ladies all dancing with the spirit of Marta Becket on the wind.
That's amazing. You've also worked with Cass McCombs recently on a music video for his song Run Girl Run, which was inspired by the mass-disappearances of indigenous women in certain parts of Canada. How did that come about?
I've photographed Cass a lot in the past and did the cover for his last album. Cass also introduced me to Mary Lattimore whose beautiful music we used in Tecopa. When he was planning the video for Run Sister Run he called me up and asked if I would direct it. Several years ago I did a portrait and oral history project with mothers of missing women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and had an awareness of similar disappearances in Canada. I remembered hearing about a young girl Tracie Léost who was honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women in her own way. I was inspired to follow her story and that became the basis for the video. Also it's shot in the daylight, finally I think I'm more ready to start experimenting with the daylight.
Text Briony Wright