YOU MAY REMEMBER CHITA RIVERA on the stage as Anita in West Side Story, as Velma in Chicago, as Liza’s mother in The Rink or perhaps as Aurora, the tempestuous Latin American B-movie queen in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Born Delores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., this versatile performer is the daughter of a Puerto Rican musician who played in the Navy Band and a mother who worked for the government after her husband’s death to support her five children. As a teenager, Rivera auditioned for George Balanchine, and a subsequent scholarship to the American School of Ballet took her to New York. Now, when she’s not on the road, her home is a farmhouse in Rockland County, New York, which she shares with her Maltese, Casper, named after the friendly ghost.
On December 8, this two-time Tony winner becomes the first Latin American to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement. She spoke passionately about her life and work to The Shuttle Sheet’s Washington editor.
THE SHUTTLE SHEET: What does it mean to you to receive a Kennedy Center Honor?
CHITA RIVERA: It’s overwhelming! This is even more powerful than a Tony. It’s the best you can get, especially for a dancer. Dancers are workhorses. We think about nothing but the work. And now The Kennedy Center stops me for a minute and says, “Thank you for the things you’ve contributed to the arts.” It reassures me that my time has not been wasted.
SS: What is it that motivates you to keep performing at age 69, in spite of your serious traffic accident in 1986?
CR: Your spirit doesn’t know about accidents. First you want to do it for your parents, then your teachers, and then I wanted to prove to my doctor that I could get through this, that he had done a magnificent job of putting me back together again. For me it’s always the challenges to do it for myself and to show those who have been good to me. I can’t just sit back. I have to be active. I’m physical. I need to hear myself communicate.
SS: So is the theater your way of communicating?
CR: Yes, I’m exercising my brain and learning from magnificent playwrights how other people think. And at times, I’m disguising myself and finding out how far I can go.
SS: You were born in Washington and lived there until moving to New York when you were 15. What was it like growing up in D.C. 60 years ago?
CR: It was a fun childhood. I was a tomboy, a daredevil. I remember climbing a pear tree. My brother Julio had a theater in our basement on Flagler Place [NW], and he would show films to the kids in the neighborhood. I was the opening act and would show what I had learned that day in my ballet class. Then we’d have the movie. The kids only had to pay for the film, which was three pennies. Our family energized the neighborhood.
SS: Do you ever regret not continuing down the ballet road?
CR: Not anymore, but for the longest time I did. It was an incomplete circle. I felt I didn’t complete what was planned for me. I’m very grateful that it went the way it did. My professional life is much bigger. I can do plays and sing.
SS: What if you had completed that circle instead?
CR: I probably wouldn’t be dancing now. At this age, with ballet, you can’t keep going. I’d be playing the evil mother witch who just walks across the stage with canes. I wouldn’t have the range I have now. I would never have used my voice. Oh, gosh, it would be totally different!
SS: Did you think about that then?
CR: No, I just followed this thing inside called spirit. After I broke the cocktail table, Mother said, “I’ve got to get her out of this house.” To save the house, Mother sent me to ballet school with Doris Jones [now the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet] when I was 8 years old.
Hollywood meets Washington at the 25th annual Kennedy Center Honors, Sunday, December 8, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2700 F Street NW, 202-467-4600). In addition to Chita Rivera, singer-songwriter Paul Simon, conductor James Levine, and actors James Earl Jones and Dame Elizabeth Taylor will receive honors.
The actual honors are bestowed at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Saturday evening. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush receive the honorees and members of the Artists Committee and Kennedy Center Trustees at the White House prior to Sunday’s performance. That event is then broadcast later this month on CBS television as a two-hour prime-time special.
SS: Do you have a favorite stage you like to play in D.C.?
CR: The National Theatre. I have two permanent seats there that I bought for my mother and my father. I have great memories of first playing West Side there and, more recently, Kiss of the Spider Woman.
SS: How do you feel when you see the revival or film version of a show for which you created the original character?
CR: You get over the shock. The only thing that bothered me about West Side was that Rita [Moreno] had on my dress in the film. That was the strangest thing. It didn’t even bother me that she got an Oscar, but the dress! When I saw Chicago it was odd because it was stripped down. It took some adjusting.
SS: Is there any actor or director you’d like to work with or work with again?
CR: Dick Van Dyke. He’s musical, he’s dramatic, he’s funny and fun to be with. I could hear him sing forever.
SS: Working is obviously a passion, but what do you do for fun?
CR: I spend time with my friends and travel to Italy, eat the pasta and drink the wine—and London . . . I could live in London. And I have a place in Puerto Rico.
SS: What about yourself would surprise most people?
CR: I’m not as nice as people think I am. I can be mean, and I’m impatient when people don’t listen. I’m crazy for peanuts, and I don’t diet every day. I take opportunities when they come, but I’m basically shy. I don’t like talking to everybody. I can’t stand cocktail-party talk.
SS: What is your next project?
CR: I go into rehearsals in January for the revival of Nine with Antonio Banderas. We open [previews] at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre [in New York] in March.
SS: What appeals to you about that role?
CR: I had lunch with the director, David LeVeaux, and I liked what he said about the show. His approach keeps it Felliniesque. I liked his energy and his intelligence, so I went with that. I have to learn some French for the part.
SS: How will you know when it’s time to put away your dancing shoes?
CR: Dancing is not always professional. There’s always the tango or waltz to keep your spirit dancing and moving to the rhythm of life. How beautiful is an older couple on the dance floor doing the cha-cha or the mambo? Moving to the rhythm of life, as Cy Coleman would say. That’s wonderful