High-Kicker: Chita Rivera

Photo: Courtesy of Barlow Hartman

Chita Rivera’s new show is not the triumph-and-tragedy one-woman gabfest audiences have come to expect from their living legends ever since Elaine Stritch’s smash At Liberty. It is, rather, a raucous biographical dance medley, scripted by Terrence McNally, and its theme may well be Rivera’s quip “It’s not who you slept with, it’s who you danced with.” Rivera, now 72, has plenty of backup dancers onstage but pulls off a dramatic number of her own high kicks and spins. She talked to Boris Kachka.

You spend a lot of time on your early roles, including a number where you literally played garbage. Why revisit those humiliations?
It’s not embarrassing at all. It’s creative. It’s pretty funny—and there was an amazing dive I did into that garbage bag. That’s what the theater is all about. It’s only horrible if it’s cruel.

You make it sound fun—you even advise the audience not to try so hard. But surely it’s not all that easy.
You do have to try hard, but not too hard. But you don’t know that until you get older.

How did you decide just how much dancing you’d be able to handle?
Audiences don’t want to go ouch. I remember saying to my daughter a long time ago, “Lisa, if you see me doing something absolutely absurd, if I lose my mind one day and have too much makeup or my skirt’s too short, please tell your mother.”

Has she?
She would, in a minute. But fortunately, I keep my eyes on myself.

You interpret everything from your upbringing to your divorce through dance. But critics have complained that you held back on your personal life.
I’m not a tell-all person. There’s that expression “Shut up and dance.”

So who is your favorite choreographer?
Jerry Robbins. I think that he can make anyone understand his choreography, anyone from any walk of life. He does it through the story. Mind you, they are all part of this amazing tapestry. Maybe one day I will just do a big painting of the colors and the shapes of what I think different choreographers give to dance.

But aren’t you worried that all the shop talk in your show might be too esoteric for a Broadway crowd?
Well, they did it with A Chorus Line, didn’t they?

Is life harder for dancers in an age when a show needs to haul in movie stars?
It’s pretty horrible that people are far more interested in celebrity than they are in talent. You get a fantastic understudy, and she doesn’t go on because they don’t give her the part, like they did in 42nd Street.

But you yourself worked with Antonio Banderas in Nine.
Oh, let me tell you, Antonio is absolutely superb. He’s the real deal. I’m not passing judgment on anybody—I don’t want it to sound like it, either.

You do get a dig in, about all the “helicopters and falling chandeliers” these days.
Well, I do appreciate them, but there isn’t anything better than the heart, or the talent, the breath. You need the heart, and to have the heart, you gotta have the body.

Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life
At the Schoenfeld Theatre

High-Kicker: Chita Rivera