Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life begins with the legendary star recounting her experience as a 2002 Kennedy Center honoree. She does so not just because it was one of the highlights of her brilliant career, but because it was the moment when she first warmed to the idea of creating an autobiographical Broadway show.
"I have a wonderful life and I'm very grateful for it," says Rivera. "But when I was originally asked to do a show about my life, I said that I couldn't imagine standing there talking about myself all night long. Then I was given a Kennedy Center Honor, and all of a sudden 35 dancers burst out on stage doing numbers from shows that I had done. It was awesome and humbling. And I thought, 'I'm sitting up here to represent all dancers.' And that's what made me think I could do a show like this, because I'm doing it for all the dancers."
Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, which had a ten-week run on Broadway, is now touring the country, stopping this month in Seattle, San Bernardino, Tempe and Costa Mesa. The musical, written by Terrence McNally and directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, touches on Rivera's personal life but focuses on her wonderful career: the shows, including West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, The Rink, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman; and the choreographers, chiefly Jerome Robbins, Peter Gennaro, Bob Fosse and Jack Cole. Rivera is backed by an ensemble of eight talented dancers — Broadway gypsies, like herself.
"That's how I started and that's who I am," she says. "I don't want to be separate from them. As a matter of fact, whenever I did my act, my boys used to tell me, 'Move down front, Chita. Don't be up here with us.' But it's great to be among them. It's a feeling of camaraderie, a feeling that you're not alone." Rivera studied ballet in her hometown of Washington, D.C., and was a scholarship student at the School of American Ballet when she accompanied a friend to an audition for the chorus of the national tour of Call Me Madam. "I got the job and she didn't," says Rivera. "I was going to be a ballet dancer. I hadn't even seen a musical, let alone thought about performing in one. But I was curious, so I went."
The role that catapulted her to stardom was, of course, Anita in West Side Story. Rivera had a wonderful relationship with the show's director and choreographer, the notoriously difficult Jerome Robbins — whom she called Big Daddy — and considers him one of the two biggest influences on her career. The other was West Side's co-choreographer, Peter Gennaro. "Jerry had the heart, the passion and the technique," she says. "Peter was New Orleans, and he had rhythm. So that takes care of the whole body."
Rivera says she looks back on her career with a sense of wonderment. "When we started to do this show, every once in a while I'd stop and think, 'Damn, I really worked with all the greats,'" she says. "You don't think about that while you're doing the work. But now I look back and go, 'Wow! It's quite amazing.'"
So was her recovery from a horrific auto accident in 1986 that left her with 16 pins in her left leg. Doctors told her she would never dance again and here she is, still going strong, just past her 74th birthday. "It's important to keep active, to be interested in something," she says. "So I keep myself moving and involved. I just keep working."