Rivera, Chita

▪ 1994

      In Kiss of the Spider Woman, a Latin-American prisoner attempts to while away the hours by recounting for his cell mate the stories of films that starred Aurora, a film goddess of the past who played a character known as the Spider Woman, and by imagining himself in scenes from those movies. At first the choice of Chita Rivera for that Marlene Dietrich-like character in the Broadway musical production—which, like the 1985 movie, was based on the novel by Manuel Puig—seemed unlikely to some. At 60 she was well beyond the age by which most dancers have ceased performing. In addition, in 1986 her left leg had been broken in 12 places in an automobile accident, and it was thought that she might never walk again, let alone dance. Nevertheless, critics and audiences alike lauded her performance, extolling this Broadway legend's energetic, sultry portrayal of an exotic film legend. A number of awards confirmed this reaction, among them the 1993 Tony award for best actress in a musical.

      Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figuero del Rivero on Jan. 23, 1933, in Washington, D.C. Her first performances were in shows her brother organized for production in the basement of their home. She took voice, piano, and ballet classes, and dance became her overwhelming favourite. She won a scholarship to George Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York City and studied there for three years. In 1952 she accompanied a friend to an audition for dancers for the touring company of Call Me Madam, was hired, and spent 10 months on the road. Returning to New York, she replaced a principal dancer in Guys and Dolls on Broadway and then joined the chorus of Can-Can. In 1954 she left chorus work behind her and performed off-Broadway in Shoestring Revue. Roles in Seventh Heaven (1955) and Mr. Wonderful (1956) followed, and then she landed the part of Anita in West Side Story and received her first Tony award nomination. More plaudits accumulated, among them Tony nominations for Rose in Bye Bye Birdie (1960), Anyanka in Bajour (1964), and Velma in Chicago (1975). She also appeared as Nickie in the film version of Sweet Charity (1969) and toured with her highly regarded cabaret act.

      Rivera finally won a Tony for her performance as Anna in The Rink (1984), which was written specifically for her. One critic said that she commanded the audience like "a lion tamer with a whip snap in her walk." The next year saw her back on Broadway in Jerry's Girls. It was during the run of the show that the career-threatening auto accident occurred. After many months of rehabilitation, she eased her way back into show business by performing her cabarat act on cruise ships. She toured with the Rockettes in Can-Can in 1988 and '89 before her triumphant return to Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman once again illustrated her power to ensnare an audience. (BARBARA WHITNEY)

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Universalium. 2010.

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