Saturday night at Miami City Ballet, there were plenty of dancers stalking and spinning around the stage of the troupe’s studio theater. But the dancer who was the star of the show hardly moved at all. She didn’t have to. Chita Rivera, the Broadway legend who played Anita in the original production of West Side Story, charmed the adoring audience with sass, stories and pungent opinions on TV talent shows.
“You don’t need some stupid person who’s never done a thing in their lives to tell you you can’t dance,” Rivera observed. “TV only shows the result you want, which is to be a star. They don’t show the art or the craft. Most kids with those TV shows think they’ll sing for five minutes and they’ll be a star. And their careers will last about five minutes, too.”
Rivera’s own career has lasted well over half a century. Now 80, she sported a short, spiky haircut, red heels and regal posture. (Asked how she stayed in shape, she credited prayer, stretching and dance classes.) The energy that lit up original productions of shows including West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago no doubt has something to do with it. “Jerry [Robbins] always insisted on us giving 150 percent,” she said. “I still don’t mark. I can’t.”
Rivera appeared as part of Open Barre, a series of informal presentations meant to illuminate MCB’s regular repertory. The company will perform West Side Story Suite, a condensed version of the musical, for Program III in February — when they will sing for the first time; on Saturday, dancers performed the numbers The Prologue, Dance at the Gym and America.
Rivera didn’t comment on their efforts, which are still in the rehearsal stage. But she did tell encouraging tales of her own start. Raised in Washington, D.C., she was a dedicated teenager on scholarship at the School of American Ballet — the feeder school for New York City Ballet — when she accompanied a friend to an audition for Call Me Madam in 1951. “I was like, ‘Oh you poor girl, you have to audition for a Broadway show, how terrible for you!’ ” Luckily for her and for generations of audiences, it was Rivera who got the part.
By the time she auditioned for West Side Story, in 1957, she wasn’t so cavalier. Facing Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim “that guy behind the piano — I didn’t know who he was” she was trembling. “So I planted my feet and put my hands behind my back to keep them from shaking,” she said. For all her dance training, she’s had only a handful of voice lessons. “Some dancers think they have no voice. The first time you sing it kinda scares you — who’s that?”
Her interlocutor was Bob Avian, an MCB board member and notable Broadway veteran himself, whose credits include backing up Barbara Streisand in the chorus of Funny Girl, co-choreographing A Chorus Line and producing Dreamgirls.
Some of their best exchanges brought out the kind of details that get under the surface of a famous production and illuminate what made it shine. Rivera recounted how Robbins, famed for being a stickler for realism, shredded and dirtied West Side Story’s costumes to make them look street-ready, and forbade the Jets and Sharks from rehearsing or socializing together to build up believable hostility. When Rivera, rehearsing a scene where she runs to the window to look for Tony, fleeing Maria’s bedroom, did so with a graceful jete and arabesque, Robbins stopped her mid-twirl. “You’re not dancing,” he told her. “You’re acting! Is that really how you would run to a window?”
About Peter Gennaro, who did uncredited choreography for the America and Mambo dance sequences, Rivera said he had the “fastest feet in the business” and sang, instead of counting, the rhythms of his choreography. “He’d go tacka-tacka-tacka-tacka and you’d just know exactly how those steps were supposed to look,” she said.
And she displayed a charmingly ironic attitude toward her own legend. Her favorite co-star was Antonio Banderas, in Kiss of the Spider Woman, in 1993. “Every dream you ever had about Antonio Banderas is true,” she said. “We used to do a tango, and I’d do a standing split with my foot on his shoulder and I’d look at the audience and say ‘eat your heart out!’ ” And she recalled walking in New York and seeing posters for revivals of Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago and West Side Story, and thinking “Shouldn’t I be at a theater somewhere at 8 p.m.?”
But she also had some old-fashioned advice: Work hard on your craft and don’t give up. At 80, she has yet another project in the works — The Visit, a Kander and Ebb musical that has gone through several productions since 2001. “I tell the kids follow your dream,” Rivera says. “No matter what anyone tells you.”