writers on dancing


Celebration of a Legend

"Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life"
Written by Terrence McNally; original songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
New York, NY
December 10, 2005 (matinee)
by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

Reviewing a now-long-forgotten 1955 Broadway show called "Seventh Heaven," the New York Daily Mirror's critic singled out one of the featured performers: "This long-stemmed miss is a thrilling dancer who struts and slinks like a panther. She is magnetic and catches the eye with her every movement." Today, the dancer he was describing is again (still) on a Broadway stage, and that description still applies—though it would be more appropriate to substitute "dame" for "miss."

Chita Rivera, sassy and slinky at 72, gives her all (and then some) in this warm-hearted, witty autobiographical show that is both a retrospective of her lengthy, varied stage career and her statement about the value and rewards of a dancing career. While it is not a treasure trove of vintage Broadway choreography on the level of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," which faithfully re-created a generous helping of exceptional numbers, Rivera's show does summon up the essence of the many musicals in which she appeared and wisely allows her to re-create three numbers from the 1975 "Chicago," demonstrating that the role of Velma Kelly was on a par with Anita in "West Side Story" when it comes to ideally showcasing her distinctive personality and talents. For while there is an ensemble of nine seasoned Broadway performers backing her and helping to move her narrative along, they are decisively background figures. "A Dancer's Life" is a showcase for Rivera's feisty, determined persona and a celebration of the combustible magic she creates on a stage.

We first catch sight of her in silhouette, swaying and letting her amazing legs fly behind a scrim in sync with a charming younger version of herself (Lianna Ortiz). Right away, we see the harnessed power, the sensual throb that marks Rivera's dancing. The scrim rises to allow her the appropriately grand entrance this kind of show requires, but there is no hint of false grandeur to her presence. After setting the scene at the 2002 Kennedy Center Honors, where she soaks it all in with "oh my god" amazement, she takes us back to a very different part of Washington, D.C., where she spent her childhood as Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, a rambunctious tomboy whose hyperactive antics inspired her mother ("who thought ballet lessons were the answer to everything") to send her to ballet class. A lively, Latin-flavored number (one of several original songs written for the show by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) depicting her family life has Rivera merrily joining in with those decades younger, happily being lifted and fitting in as one of the gang.

From there, it's on to her audition at the School of American Ballet and her unplanned but seamless transition to Broadway dancer. She may have made her first appearance in Akron, Ohio, but the show was Irving Berlin's "Call Me Madam" and it was Jerome Robbins who cast her in the ensemble. She takes us through the seemingly inevitable next steps—making it to Broadway as a replacement in "Guys and Dolls," then being part of the original cast of several none-too-successful shows, before Robbins cast her as Anita. She sings and/or dances a signature number from each show, most deliciously recreating one of the "Seventh heaven" numbers that charmed that critic back in 1955—a merry trio in which Rivera is the most knowing and ribald of three French prostitutes, and puts those assertive legs to excellent use.

Rivera is onstage essentially all the time during this two-act show, occasionally pausing to narrate, or sing from a chair, but mostly demonstrating that - despite the passing of decades and a 1986 car accident that left her with broken bones in her leg—her ability to communicate vibrantly through movement is very much a thing of the present. In 2003, she snaked her legs around Antonio Banderas in "Nine," providing a volatile presence in a small but memorable featured role. Here, everything revolves around her, and she is very much up to the task—ready to offer a slyly mocking description or a dead-on impersonation, warmly making her audience very much part of the whole experience. She is smartly costumed in a black dress that is both elegant and evocative of a dancer's practice clothes. It has a filmy skirt and sleeves, with a velvet bodice, and she looks sophisticated and sensual.  

The first act really charges along, although the way "West Side Story" is presented is unimpressive. A way-too-small ensemble performs part of the "Dance at the Gym (Mambo"), but without the seething energy you get when the two opposing groups of dancers facing off, it loses power. (Alan Johnson reproduced Robbins' choreography.) And while the costumes the dancers wear for the number are attractive, having the men in deep-hued suits of gleaming material doesn't quite fit the scene. And why have Rivera (who certainly already has enough to do) sing 'Somewhere"—number intended for a quasi-operatic voice and whose place in the show has nothing to do with Rivera's role? Lord knows she already has enough to do, so why have her sing this clarion anthem when she's just finished joining in the Mambo?

The second act's early section about her relationships with men depletes the show's energy (the spicy information that she had a fling with Sammy Davis, Jr. was already covered in Act One), especially since it doesn't lend itself to dancing. She moves through several brief tangos with Richard Amaro, a tall, haughty-looking member of the cast, as she discusses her marriage and its eventual ending. But things pick up as she moves on to the choreographers she has worked with—their quirks, requirements, trademark moves, and how each of them helped extend her abilities. Gower Champion goes notably unmentioned, but she does a service by pointing out the significance and originality of Jack Cole's contributions.

The show, which also includes sections focusing on her leading men and co-stars, is clearly aimed at being an inclusive, embracing effort. Rivera shaped it with Graciela Daniele, who danced alongside her in the original "Chicago" and later became a major choreographer and then director, and the text was written by the clever, quick-witted Terrence McNally, who knows Rivera's persona well, having written the book for three musicals in which she performed. Rivera clearly enjoys the give-and-take with others onstage, and you can sense her feeding off the energy and eagerness of her fellow performers, while they savor the experience of sharing in her journey through Broadway history.

But however much she derives pleasure and motivation from those around her, Rivera shines in her own bright solo light throughout this show. She takes us willingly along thorough her tales of naïve mistakes and on-the-job education, and rivets us when she creates that
huge alchemy between voice and body to deliver a knockout number. The two selections from Chicago that close each of the acts are the true highlights. She performs "Nowadays" with every precise yet casual Fosse flick and gesture perfectly in place, with deft timing and unforced magnetism. Next to her spotlight is another, unoccupied one, in homage to Gwen Verdon, who performed it with her in 1975. Rivera manages to convince you of her partner's presence, while at the same time making it work completely as a solo. Similarly, when she ends the show with "All That Jazz," she has the pint-sized Ortiz beside her, following the choreography's pure essence but leaving out the naughty and defiant edge that Rivera brings to it so effortlessly. When "Chicago" is fully staged, the number includes a busy frame of dancers amplifying and setting off Velma's sardonic slinks and swivels. Here, the ensemble (in jarring shiny black jumpsuits) only puts in a token appearance, and we hardly notice them. Rivera shows us all we need to know—and then some.

All photos by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 3, No. 46
December 12, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Eva Kistrup
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Naima Prevots
Susan Reiter
Lisa Rinehart
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan
last updated on December 12, 2005