Appreciation: Chita Rivera, a Broadway diva by stature, not by temperament

Chita Rivera, the chorus dancer who became a bona fide Broadway star, wielded her body with divine grace. Her physical technique was magical even well into her 80s. But the spark that illuminated her stage performances came from within.

She was a diva by stature, not by temperament. Her presence exuded generosity and gratitude. Collaboration wasn’t a buzzword to her. It was how the art came into existence.

Having originated the roles of Anita in “West Side Story” and Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie,” Rivera, who died on Tuesday in New York at 91, was a product of Broadway’s golden age. When musical theater hit hard times, she became one of its saving graces, casting a spell with her limbs for a new era of choreography. Her performance as Velma Kelly in “Chicago” helped immortalize Bob Fosse’s dance vocabulary.

She could have grown haughty from the company she kept. The Broadway songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb created shows expressly for her, among them “The Rink,” which earned Rivera her first (and already overdue) Tony Award. Producers felt artistically secure when Chita — no last name needed — was on board. She was a royal with a work ethic that kept her grounded.

Rivera saw herself as part of a noble tradition. Terrence McNally, one of her devoted collaborators, called her “the keeper of the flame.” The penumbra of Broadway stardust she radiated accumulated over decades.

There were no shortcuts. How do you stay in such great shape? I asked her when she was in rehearsal for “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” a show created around her dazzling history. “I’m hungry all the time,” she joked, feigning collapse. She was in her 70s at the time, a veteran of long Broadway campaigns. Hard work was her secret. Humility only deepened her stardom, the source of which was her humanity.

Yes, her gifts were legendary. Rivera, even at the age of 89, when she came to Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall to perform her cabaret act, “Chita: The Rhythm of My Life,” could do more with a shoulder than most younger dancers could do with their whole bodies. And by “do” I mean communicate emotion, indicate loss, glimpse transcendence.

McNally put his finger on her genius when he observed that Rivera combined “infallible technique and generosity of spirit.”

“Chita seems to be able to express her deepest self through the discipline of her craft,” he said.

She suffered setbacks, but like all first-rate actors, she committed as fully as possible to living in the moment. Not getting to play Anita in the movie version of “West Side Story,” which earned Rita Moreno an Academy Award, might have embittered a more egotistical performer. But that wasn’t Rivera’s style. “Being in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ at the time with a man named Dick Van Dyke and Gower Champion directing helped a lot,” she explained to me when I asked how she managed the disappointment.

A terrible car accident in 1986 shattered her leg, which was put back together with pins. But not even that tragedy could thwart her spirit. Grueling physical therapy brought her back on her dancing feet. A few years later she won her second Tony, this one for her performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

In 2015 she starred in “The Visit,” a long-aborning musical with a book by McNally and a score by Kander and Ebb that was based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play. It was her last Broadway production, but for Rivera the timing was perfect. She brought to the ghostly role her own expansive sense of history — once again revealing eternity through her beneficent, dazzling, invincible artistry. A lifetime achievement Tony Award, bestowed in 2018, paid homage to this most exemplary of Broadway careers.

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