Dancer, your life is calling

Special to The Times

THE legs are the first thing you notice. Even when she's sitting down -- in loose-fitting nylon workout pants -- Chita Rivera's long, sturdy, eloquent gams demand to be noticed. There's a kind of poetry in the way she crosses and recrosses them, stretches them discreetly, or puts one forward for emphasis.

Reputedly, she once had the quickest pair in the biz. But whether she's onstage or off, moving fast or slowly, she knows how to use them. And, like Betty Grable's and Tina Turner's, they've helped make her a star.

They've certainly inspired a glittering list of composers, choreographers and playwrights. "All these unbelievable people I've worked with are part of me," she says. "They write it for you, and you translate it through your body and voice."

Rivera, an old-fashioned triple threat, earned her fame the hard way: through decades of dancing, singing and acting in chorus parts and leading roles. And now, at age 72, she's bringing her own story to the stage in "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life," a musical opening Thursday at San Diego's Old Globe. (A Broadway run begins in November.) Like Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch, two slightly older contemporaries still in vintage form, Rivera makes you feel that you're in the presence of theatrical royalty the moment she walks into a room.

Her illustrious career put her on a first-name basis with such titans as "Lenny," "Steve," "Bobby" and of course "Jerry." (That would be Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins to the rest of us.) Rivera has worked with them all, as well as with Gower Champion, Harold Prince, Peter Gennaro, Michael Kidd and just about anyone else who's changed the face of the modern American musical. Along the way, she has collected two Tonys (for "The Rink" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), eight Tony nominations (the second most for an actress, after Julie Harris), and a 2002 Kennedy Center Honor. It was the last of these awards that convinced her a show about her life in the theater, which friends had been urging for years, might not be such a bad idea after all.

"I'm not one to linger over the past," Rivera says during a break in rehearsals. "But when all those dancers came out at the Kennedy Center and danced for me in scenes from 'West Side Story' and 'Chicago,' I was just in tears. I've always known that I represent the gypsy, the chorus girl. And so, hey, since I'm still standing up, I figured, why not do a show about my life from the standpoint of showing people, and kids in particular, what the theater used to be like?"

Naturally for a star who's made her name through collaborative artistry, "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" isn't a solo performance. "I would never do a one-woman show because that's boring for Chita," she says. "I live to see other people's work."

More the art than the life

WITH a book by Terrence McNally, new songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and direction by Graciela Daniele, the production features 10 other dancers, a few of whom (most of the men, in fact) Rivera has performed with before.

Spanning the chapters in her life, from childhood to grand Broadway successes, the show differs from most theatrical bios in that it dwells more on the art than the life -- though it does offer a few gossipy tidbits, including one on Rivera's ex-husband and fellow "West Side" cast member, Tony Mordente, and another on her love affair with Sammy Davis Jr., her costar in "Mr. Wonderful."

McNally, who's written the books for three other musicals Rivera has starred in ("The Rink," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "The Visit"), cautions that anyone who comes in expecting the show to be like Stritch's tell-all autobiographical solo play, "At Liberty," will be disappointed. "Chita is a very different person," he explains. "She's never had to overcome substance and alcohol abuse. Her story is in the shows she's done and in her professional life. She speaks to everyone who works in the theater with her longevity and her desire to pass on what she's learned from one generation to the next."

Reticent about her personal life, except when praising her daughter, actor and dancer Lisa Mordente, Rivera really ignites when she talks about her working relationships. What was Fosse like to work with? ("Wild sense of humor and very, very dark, right on the edge.") And what does she mean exactly when she says she was in love with Robbins? ("I called him Big Daddy. I idolized him and would have done anything for him. He was very handsome.")

Watching Rivera in rehearsal, it's clear how she thrives on the camaraderie and adulation of her company members. Good-natured diva that she is, she seems to be playing to everyone in the room. In one segment, Rivera pays tribute to the choreographers who have shaped her, sampling some Gennaro Latin fire, Fosse minimalism, and Robbins athletic grace. By the end, the younger dancers on the sideline are shaking their heads in amazement at her range and effortless command.

McNally describes Rivera as "the keeper of the flame," a performer who combines "infallible technique and generosity of spirit." Genuine technique and genuine humanity, he says, obviously aren't mutually exclusive, but rarely are they so seamlessly integrated: "Chita seems to be able to express her deepest self through the discipline of her craft."

Though she danced only briefly with Antonio Banderas in the 2003 Broadway revival of "Nine" (for which she nabbed her eighth Tony nomination), she says it feels "natural" to be at it again full-throttle. How does she keep her 72-year-old body in such tiptop shape? "I'm hungry all the time," she jokes, before crediting all the tyrannical ballet teachers and choreographers who laid the foundation of her solid technique. "We're athletes," she says. "You've got to be able to make your body do something that it normally wouldn't do and only can when forced."

As her producers point out, her physical prowess is astonishing not only for her age but also for what she's been through. In 1986, during a period when she was appearing in "Jerry's Girls" on Broadway, the car she was in was hit by a taxi in Manhattan. Her leg was shattered, and she had to have 16 pins inserted into it (they remain there today); she also underwent grueling physical therapy for a year before returning to do a national tour of "Can-Can" in 1988.

Are there any old moves she now avoids? "Well, I don't do the flying splits anymore," she says. "No back flips either. But you don't have to do all that. That's one of the wonderful things that come with maturity. And then you discover what you didn't have when you were younger. When I did 'Spider Woman,' I was really ready for 'Spider Woman.' I would not have been ready 10 or 15 years earlier. I felt that I could be that person in those Florence Klotz clothes. Experience helps you."

Auspicious audition

BORN Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., Rivera was one of five children. Her father, who was originally from Puerto Rico, played clarinet and saxophone for the U.S. Navy Band and died when she was 7; her mother then supported the family through a job at the Pentagon and encouraged her daughter's formal study of dance. At 16, Rivera won a scholarship to George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, which brought her to New York and the lure of Broadway.

Accompanying a ballet-school friend for a chorus-girl audition, she was cast at age 17 as the principal dancer in "Call Me Madam" by a 32-year-old choreographer named Jerome Robbins. Seven years later, he would offer her the role of Anita in "West Side Story." Suffice it to say, history -- for both Rivera and the American musical -- was made.

Though Rivera has cut a wide swath through Broadway, Hollywood has been less enamored of her. Her greatest triumphs -- "West Side Story," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" -- have all been in the theater. When movie versions of her musicals were made, she was either replaced (by Rita Moreno in "West Side") or given a cameo to make up for being too old for her original role ("Chicago"). Did the snubs hurt? "I never wanted to be a star," Rivera says, a statement that only makes sense when you understand that her idols were always the great ballerinas and not, say, a Hollywood hoofer like Cyd Charisse. "When you're a dancer, you just keep going at what you're doing, and if you're lucky they keep picking you up. But I guess you earn something with longevity."

The hardest episodes in her show, she says, are those in which she confronts her losses -- the early scenes when she interacts with family members who are no longer living, and the dance tribute to the late Gwen Verdon, her "Chicago" costar and one of the few other dancers to become a crossover star. By comparison, questions about Moreno's Oscar turn as Anita in the movie version of "West Side Story" hardly faze her. "Being in 'Bye Bye Birdie' at the time with a man named Dick Van Dyke and Gower Champion directing helped a lot," she says.

Rivera, as her fans love to point out, embodies Broadway's golden age. Yet John Kander, who wrote three Broadway shows for Rivera with his partner, Fred Ebb ("Chicago," "The Rink" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), and another that has yet to make it to Broadway ("The Visit"), wants to clear up a misconception: "People are always saying that Chita's the last of a certain kind of performer. But they're wrong. I don't remember there being any performers like her."

For Kander, even though "Chicago" has been successfully revived and made into an Oscar-winning film, Rivera was so memorable as Velma Kelly that he still has trouble imagining anyone else in the role: "When the producers of 'Chicago' started thinking about replacements for Chita, I told them shortly after the opening that they had better start looking now because there aren't any."

McNulty will become The Times' theater critic later this year.

*

'Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life'

Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Sun., Tue., Wed.; 8 p.m. Thur. through Sat.; 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun. No evening show Oct. 1.

Ends: Oct. 23

Price: $47 to $75

Contact: (619) 234-5623

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