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Legendary Chita Rivera twirls, kicks through ‘Dancer’s Life’

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By Anita Mabante Leach

Chita Rivera: “I’ve been lucky, anyhow, because all of those shows are great shows.”

Chita Rivera has danced in Broadway’s footlights for more than a half-century, creating a legendary career that includes two Tony awards, seven Tony nominations and accolades longer than a Rockettes chorus line.

Rivera owes her Broadway calling to an audition at which she hadn’t intended to perform. Then 17, she had gone with a friend to dance for choreographer Jerome Robbins, who cast Rivera as principal dancer in Call Me Madam, the first in a long string of Broadway musicals.

It wasn’t the first time Rivera’s talent had been recognized. She started ballet lessons at age 7; five years later in New York, legendary choreographer George Balanchine gave Rivera a scholarship to the American School of Ballet.

That foundation of training and determination has served Rivera well; she points to hard work as an anchor for anyone wanting to become a professional dancer.

“The only advice I have to give to anybody is to study hard, make sure your foundation is strong, believe in yourself and go straight ahead – don’t let anybody say you can’t do it,” Rivera says during a phone interview. “You have to have good teachers and you have to listen. You have to go to those auditions and you have to accept that there’s no such thing as a failure. You’re just not accepted at that time; your time will come.”

Rivera stars in The Dancer’s Life, an autobiographical musical which runs at Gammage Auditorium March 13 – 18. Her Broadway collaborators had approached Rivera about creating a show based on her life, but she demurred until in 2002  when she received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor, the first Hispanic to receive the award. At the ceremony, Rivera says she had an epiphany.

“I’m private, so I really didn’t want to put my life out there. But I was sitting in a box next to Elizabeth Taylor and other amazing celebrities,” she recalls. “The director of Chicago asked to stage my section and about 50 dancers hit the stage.” That’s when she realized what she wanted the show to be about a singular Broadway experience “through me, but the dance.”

Rivera describes The Dancer’s Life as “kind of a master class on dancers, Broadway and life itself — the longevity of one’s life and time, how it passes, how we change, how we don’t.”

The show covers West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Can Can, Sweet Charity, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago. Dance fans will love the high-energy numbers.

“There are numbers that I am extremely fond of,” she says. “Well, I’ve been lucky, anyhow, because all of those shows are great shows.”

The audience likely will feel they are the lucky ones, enjoying a show starring Chita Rivera.

‘CHITA RIVERA: THE DANCER’S LIFE’
March 13 – 18
ASU Gammage Auditorium
Info: www.asugammage.org
or call Ticketmaster (480) 784-4444.

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