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For Chita Rivera, A Career With Legs

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  • For Chita Rivera, A Career With Legs

    For Chita Rivera, A Career With Legs

    By Jacqueline Trescott


    December 8, 2002
    Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company.
    All rights reserved.


    "I need to speak some text like Lorca. It is like poetry. And my spirit becomes energetic," says Chita Rivera of the dramatically demanding roles she's taken on, including one last summer in Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba." Below, Rivera in the original 1957 production of "West Side Story."


    (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

    ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y.
    -- At crucial moments, teachers helped Chita Rivera become what she is today: her own person.

    The actress with the well-defined legs and skyscraper-high kick was born with talent. But she also got help along the way. From her Washington ballet instructor. From Leonard Bernstein. And especially from legendary Broadway dancer Gwen Verdon.

    Though the two later shared star billing in "Chicago," Verdon was first an idol and an inspiration. From her, Rivera learned how to handle the spotlight, and not settle for anything less.

    Sitting in the sunroom of her country home here in Upstate New York, Rivera recalls learning how to take her place in the spotlight. When Verdon was onstage in "Chicago," Rivera rarely went back to her own dressing room. She watched. She listened.

    "Gwen could do a movement, and someone else would do it, and it would be filthy. But not Gwen, she would do it and it would be sexy," Rivera says. "That is my place, in the wings, watching. I used to watch her all the time and just pick it up. I'm a thief."

    She cackles at herself.

    Rivera has carved out a niche in Broadway history, most famously for her dancing and durability but also for her considerable singing and acting gifts. Five Tony nominations, two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical and, this weekend, the Kennedy Center Honors, are the billboards along the way.

    Terrence McNally, the playwright who did "The Rink" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" -- the musicals that brought Rivera her Tonys -- says she has few peers. "She is a star and, at the same time, a trouper. She has simply given her life to the theater. Hers is a theater life," he says.

    Rivera was there when history was being made, as the original Anita in "West Side Story," as the first Rose in "Bye Bye Birdie," as the first Velma in "Chicago" and first Spider Woman in "Kiss."

    "She is like a goddess in the dance community," says Ann Reinking, the dancer and choreographer who followed Verdon and Rivera into "Chicago" and now collaborates with Rivera.

    In Rivera's white-shingled home here, next to a towering grove of trees and its own smokehouse, the Tonys are tucked away, almost hidden in a crowded glass case along with crystal Lalique dancers. A white Maltese is scurrying through the rooms, barking in sync with Rivera's high-pitched laughter. The kitchen is long and spilling over with utensils, appliances, platters, mugs -- the jumble of a busy household. Though Rivera lives alone, lots of people are in and out -- first a secretary, then her brother, who is also her manager. There are groups of pictures -- Rivera's parents, her daughter Lisa Mordente, a singer and dancer, and Mother Teresa.

    In the midst of it all Rivera is perched, sort of rustling, not quite sitting, animatedly talking about her first years on the stage.

    She debuted in 1952, in the chorus of "Call Me Madam," and over the next few years caught the attention of people who would shape much of Broadway history.

    Hal Prince, producer of "West Side Story" and director of "Spider Woman," was among them. "I knew of her early, even when I was doing 'Damn Yankees' in 1955, because the fact is that she is a huge presence on the stage. There is no question that she had, and has, star quality. She is a unique and a dazzling dancer and she sings incredibly well," Prince says.

    Five decades later, Rivera still has that presence. For performers -- particularly dancers -- the Kennedy Center Honors often come at the twilight of a career. Rivera makes it clear she has no intention of turning down her flame. Sipping tea, she slides into the naughty Chita, sharp and delicious. "Does this mean that it is over?" she asks, her coal-black eyebrows arching into a dare. "Does someone know something I don't know?"

    Part of Rivera's legacy is that she has brought to life the ideas of so many famous theater people -- from composer Bernstein to choreographer Bob Fosse to the musical team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.

    "Chita is like flypaper. People are attracted to her and want to stick with her," Ebb says. "One of the highlights of my life was the nightclub act I wrote for her. I gave it to her as a Christmas present, and we put it on first at the Grand Finale [in New York]. There were lines outside the club. She is, all in all, a joy."

    Dancer Charlotte d'Amboise, starring in the "Chicago" revival on Broadway, grew up hearing about Rivera from her father, the dancer Jacques d'Amboise. "I remember watching the movie 'Sweet Charity,' " she says, "and my father would say: 'Watch her! You have to watch her!' As far as dancing, there is no one like her. She has that thing I love so much: abandon. Her style is aggressive and passionate. She attacks her steps. And she has her own thing, her signature. It's like Streisand, you know it's her."

    In a few weeks Rivera will be 70 and, despite the pins in her leg from a car accident 16 years ago, is lined up to do three plays. Next month she starts rehearsals with Antonio Banderas for "Nine," a musical based on the Fellini film classic "8 1/2." "The Visit," the Kander and Ebb musical that brought her awards for its run in Chicago last year, is set to open in New York in 2004. And a dramatic musical called "Ballroom" is in the planning stages.

    Rivera is the first Hispanic American to receive the Kennedy Center Honors and the third Washingtonian, after the actress Helen Hayes and Edward Albee. She grew up Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, a tomboy who spent a lot of time jumping up and down on the furniture in the family home on Flagler Place NW, just off North Capitol Street. Her parents were both from Puerto Rico. Her father played clarinet and saxophone for the Navy Band; after his death when Rivera was 7, her mother went to work at the Pentagon.

    To tone down her rambunctiousness, her mother enrolled her in the Jones-Hayward School of Ballet. It was run by a pair of formidable black women, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. When Conchita was 15, a teacher from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet visited their studio. She was one of two students picked to audition in New York.

    When Jones, her ballet teacher in Washington, escorted her to the tryout, she calmed her student with a piece of advice Rivera has never forgotten: "Conchita, stay in your lane." She meant: Don't worry about the long bodies and blond ponytails lining up next to you for the auditions, be who you are.

    It was just what the young dancer needed to hear.

    "As I was dancing, a man in the corner stopped me and said come over. I put my foot on his lap. A blister had broken and he sent someone out for a Band-Aid, and he put that Band-Aid on my ankle," Rivera says. It was the man himself, George Balanchine. "If I had known that was Mr. Balanchine, I wouldn't have been able to pick that foot up again," she says.

    Accepted into the country's leading ballet organization, Rivera left Dunbar High and moved to New York, where she finished her schooling. In ballet, her teachers included some of the top American dancers of the century: Edward Villella, Allegra Kent and Maria Tallchief.

    One day a friend who was nervous about an audition for the chorus of "Call Me Madam" asked Rivera, then 17, to go with her. Within hours, ballet was abandoned. A Broadway career was started. "Guys and Dolls" followed, then "Can-Can," and "Mr. Wonderful" with Sammy Davis Jr.

    Theatrical history was waiting. In 1957, she landed a leading role in "West Side Story," a work by Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents that heralded a new direction in musicals.

    Hal Prince, one of the show's producers, explains that Agnes de Mille, choreographer of "Oklahoma!," "Carousel" and "Brigadoon," "had reconfigured the musical so the dancers continued to do the story. Here we had everyone dance for themselves and sing, dance and act."

    It was not an easy transition for Rivera, who says frankly she didn't know how to sing. Bernstein became her voice coach, walking her through "A Boy Like That."

    "I was alone with Lenny in his apartment. I was going, 'I can't.' I couldn't tell you what key I sang in. He would teach me how to get the notes, how to relax, where to put my tongue, how to breathe. His energy was so powerful that he sucked you in," Rivera says.

    "West Side Story" broke new ground by addressing such contemporary issues as gang violence and social prejudices. But all that took a back seat for Rivera. She was worried about getting those songs right.

    She did worry that the lines from "America" about Puerto Rico were insulting: Rosalia: I'll bring a TV to San Juan. Anita: If there's a current to turn on! Rosalia: I'll give them new washing machine. Anita: What have they got there to keep clean?

    Now, almost a lifetime has passed, and she has two thoughts about "West Side Story." She was a little uncomfortable with the language. "I was never able to really relax when they called me 'Spic.' Those scenes were very real for me, even though I had never suffered from anything," she says. And she is worried that people didn't get the grand meaning. "Unfortunately it means that nothing has changed. People still don't understand other people; people still don't listen to other people's culture, or care about other people's differences."

    Then one day a Puerto Rican boy killed another child on a playground in New York. "There was a front page taped to the board, and Jerry [Robbins] said, 'This is your life,' " pointing out the parallels between real life on the streets and "West Side Story," she recalls. "Then we opened in Washington at the National Theatre and it happened. 'America' stopped the show," she says. The cast was bewildered and anxious to soak up the applause. "We were all in the wings asking Jerry what should we do. He said go downstairs and change your clothes, we are doing a show."

    By the time the show opened on Broadway on Sept. 26, 1957, the persona of Chita Rivera was visible to all. "If you look at tapes of 'America' you will see a kind of sharp, clean, defined performing that is common to very few people. You can be a star with looks and personality, but Chita also has the technique," Prince says.

    The good roles came with solid regularity.

    Yet she also knows what it's like to have a show clawed by the critics. Even after 21 years, she gets worked up about "Bring Back Birdie," which picked up the "Bye Bye Birdie" characters two decades later.

    "It should have been a hit. It was all bad thinking. We should have gone out of town. We opened in New York; we weren't ready. They really should have gotten Dick Van Dyke. Even though it was wonderful with Dennis O'Connor" (Rivera makes that last observation with eyes crossed and a look as if she'd just swallowed arsenic). It flopped quickly. She pauses: "The flowers were as fresh going back across the stage as they were coming. That's how fast that was. It lasted a weekend."

    "The Rink" lasted only six months on Broadway, but Rivera loved it. She played an older woman, mother to Liza Minnelli. "Liza was fabulous, but the audience wanted glitz and glamour. It's funny how the critics . . . if they don't get what they think they want, they don't want to accept what they are seeing," says Rivera.

    She turns disappointments into personal lessons, and sometimes show routines. In her nightclub act she included an etiquette sketch on how to lose graciously. "At one point I brought out the bottom of a Halston dress that I had worn to a Tony evening, where I lost. I brought it out and said: 'I just want to show you this. You didn't see the bottom of the dress because I didn't stand up.' "

    Then in the spring of 1986, she was appearing in a tribute to Jerry Herman called "Jerry's Girls." Driving her Datsun 280Z from the theater one night, she made a U-turn on West 86th Street and collided with a taxi. Her left leg was cracked in 12 places, and required 18 screws and two braces to mend. It was a long 11 months. Her dance training and her parents' good genes helped her get well. "The only credit I give myself is that I am smart enough to listen," Rivera says.

    Wearing her heels, Rivera worked out her postoperative shakes by appearing in cabarets Upstate and then on cruises. When she was ready, she went on the road with "Can-Can," backed by the Rockettes. "I did tell the choreographer you can have two splits and that's it, you have two splits. I wasn't about to do cartwheels."

    In another seven years, Rivera took the "Spider Woman" role, which required a hard tango, rhythmic struts and a slide down a rope. It would have tested any dancer. Playwright McNally knew she was perfect for the role. "The woman had to have the aura of a star. And it was a Latin show. We had to make the fantasy musical theater. Chita did both beautifully," he says.

    She loved the story about man's inhumanity to man and her role as a siren.

    "To play a fantasy at the age of 60," she says, giving a low whistle. "My challenge was to make death attractive and alluring."

    Slowing down isn't a concept for Rivera.

    "The Visit," an adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt's fable of a vengeful dowager, brought her some new awards.

    Reinking, the choreographer, says Rivera showed why she is unique. "For a dancer, the part is a conundrum. She plays a woman with a wooden leg. She developed this walk and she didn't strap her leg, didn't put on a prosthesis. She walked. You know when someone is ultra-great when they can take something so simple and do something with it. It became dramatic, pumped and elegant. And we developed a one-legged tango around it. You could give that to somebody else and it wouldn't happen."

    Her roles seem to be getting darker. This summer she appeared in "The House of Bernarda Alba," a dark drama by Federico Garcia Lorca about a mother who keeps her daughters imprisoned. " 'Spider Woman' came at the right time of my life. I had gotten older, a bit more sure of myself. I was feeling more glamorous; I had the right to be that sort of person," she says. But the dancer-actress needed weight. "I need to speak some text like Lorca. It is like poetry. And my spirit becomes energetic."

    After this weekend Rivera's calendar is full. "Nine" brings new demands. "I'm doing it. I have to learn to speak with a French accent. I don't know why I give myself these challenges. Here I go again, with Antonio Banderas! So I guess I will see all my old friends. They will come out of the woodwork," she says demonstrating with the outstretched arms how they will say a quick hello to her and thrust themselves at the matinee idol.

    But she doesn't count herself out. She recalls the night four years ago when she was onstage at the Kennedy Center Honors, paying tribute to Kander and Ebb. The lineup, she recalls, included herself and Bebe Neuwirth. The 69-year-old actress grimaces at the subtext: "You know the then and the now. But I say the now and the now! Excuse me, I'm here! Hello!"
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