Chita Rivera grew as much as be a Broadway queen, however you’ll be able to’t pass over that she was a ballet child. Her coaching started after a botched soar at her household residence in Washington, D.C. Rivera — nonetheless Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero on the time — landed on the espresso desk. It shattered.
Her vitality wanted to be greater than merely contained; it wanted to discover a launch. It was her mom’s concept that the discharge would possibly come within the type of dance, particularly ballet. She took Rivera to the Jones-Haywood College of Ballet, the place she was launched to Doris Jones, the esteemed instructor who grew to become like a second mom. Jones, she wrote in her memoir, modified her life. “Are you prepared to work arduous, Dolores?” Rivera recounted Jones asking her at that assembly. “More durable than you’ve ever labored earlier than?”
She was. And he or she did. Rivera, who died on Tuesday at 91, at all times thought of herself extra a dancer than a musical-theater star. (She even known as her 2005 musical revue “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.”) “The pure inclination of dancers is to maintain to themselves,” she wrote. “It’s the work that issues.”
And a dancer is rarely happy. Broadway could also be the place Rivera flourished, however her foundational residence was ballet. She and one other Jones-Haywood pupil, Louis Johnson — who went on to have a spectacular profession as a choreographer and dancer — had been taken to New York for an audition on the College of American Ballet. They each received scholarships.
The College of American Ballet, shaped by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934, is the coaching floor of New York Metropolis Ballet. Rivera didn’t comprehend it on the time, however the man auditioning her was Balanchine himself. “One thing in regards to the teacher made me wish to please him,” she wrote.
At first becoming a member of Metropolis Ballet was her dream, however that modified when she grew to become conscious of Janet Collins, then the one Black instructor at College of American Ballet. Her lessons had been a mixture of trendy dance, ballet and the strategy of the choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. Rivera additionally began going to the Palladium Ballroom, the Midtown dance corridor, for its Latin Nights. Quickly she was, as she writes, “out on the dance ground fusing my ballet coaching with the salsa, mambo and rumba steps I used to be studying.”
College students on the college didn’t aspire to Broadway: “We turned up our noses,” she wrote. However when phrase unfold that Collins was making her Broadway debut in a present staged by Agnes de Mille, Rivera’s thoughts began to shift.
Whereas she was drawn in one other course, her ballet coaching by no means left her physique. It made her one of the vital refined dancers in musical theater: A 1962 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” demonstrates not simply the expressive agility of her flickering legs (and her flickering is extraordinary), but additionally a full-bodied dedication to transferring via a step relatively than pausing ready.
There’s nothing static about Rivera as a dancer, however she doesn’t blur any edges both. Her finesse comes within the gracious approach she exhibits each angle of her physique, the eye to épaulement — the carriage of the arms and shoulders — all of the whereas speaking up area. Dancing huge and with intention. Air doesn’t escape her; she chases it down. You may hear Balanchine’s well-known dictum in her physique: “What are you saving it for?”
It wasn’t simply ballet coaching that set Rivera aside. Loads of dancers have that. It was the place she was educated. Rivera danced as if she knew that now was all there may be — one other Balanchine saying — a approach of being that remained along with her for her complete profession. Her physique could have left the ballet world, however ballet by no means left her physique. She saved nothing.