Feature: Chita Rivera Awards 2019: A Colorful Celebration of Dance & Diversity

By: May. 28, 2019
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Feature: Chita Rivera Awards 2019: A Colorful Celebration of Dance & Diversity

The stars were on their feet (toes, taps and standing ovations) Sunday night for the Chita Rivera Awards -- an annual ceremony recognizing the very best in dance on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in film that honors icons and trailblazers while also nurturing future generations. It could have been dubbed "Chita Rivera's Dance Salon" for the presenters, attendees and honorees read like a Who's Who of Chita's friends, fans and fellow Fosse favorites, including hosts Ben Vereen and Anne Reinking. That playful pair wore black and white contrasting suits and got off to a jovial start noting that most who would enter the stage might recount their one, two or even a few experiences with Chita but to list theirs combined would take up the whole evening. Indeed, the octogenarian who is still kicking and showing no signs of stopping, has been in too many shows to name and worked with many artists considered to be -- much like herself -- some of the greatest of all time. Most bright young things would find it hard to keep up with her!

Speaking of which, the evening was kicked off with a glitzy opening number from the legendary dance sensation and cherished New York staple, The Rockettes. As expected, the lovely ladies began the night's festivities with grace and glamour, razor-sharp precision, classic elegance as well as a touch of Latin flair (perhaps in honor of the awards' namesake?). Reinking explained that dancing with The Rockettes was her first gig in New York, which is not surprising with those long limbs. Vereen offered that he too had an important job at Universal Artists...in the mailroom. The two set the tone for a joyous nearly three hour celebration of dance, dancers and those who make it happen onstage and off. This ceremony is one of the most unique amongst the multitudes during awards season because it paid tribute to an often overlooked and under-appreciated yet important aspect that makes a show so special and captivating to experience. The criteria for nominations is that the dances and dancers are not used as mere fluff or distraction between scene changes, but an integral part of the storytelling.

The yearly event was made possible by and for the NYC Dance Alliance Foundation in support of their College Scholarship Program, for which proceeds from the evening benefitted. Founder and Executive Director Joe Lanteri (who is also the Director and Executive Producer of the Chita Rivera Awards, along with Patricia Watt) explained the scholarship's mission, "We are investing in teenagers to ensure the future of dance." Past recipients, who now enjoy successful careers in the field praised the critical aide that the scholarship had afforded them and a tear-jerking video presentation demonstrated the immeasurable value that such an opportunity provided to those young people at the pivotal moment in their lives as budding dance professionals. For one thing is for certain for a dancer -- training is everything. One of the honorees, Carol Paumgarten, was awarded a Vanguard Award for Outstanding Contribution to the International Dance Community for her ongoing work to provide excellent offerings for training dancers of all ages, backgrounds, skill levels, nationalities and interests through the multidisciplinary offerings and internationally renowned instructors at Steps on Broadway since 1979.

Advocates of all kinds are crucial and The Cher Show magic-makers: prolific Producers and serious supporters of daring dance -- Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez -- along with Cher herself, were presented with Ambassador for the Arts statues. The diva, however, was not present to pick up her token, much to this disappointment of many, but who could blame her -- the worldwide superstar and household name already has shelves full of the highest achievements (including a recent Kennedy Center Honor). More significantly, as mentioned by the producers, Cher turned 73 the next day (May 20) and was performing a concert as part of her continually sold-out tour. Never underestimate the longevity and power of Cher -- or the other awesome female forces of nature who are now considered senior citizens but have no intention of even slowing down anytime soon -- including Chita and Lifetime Achievement recipient, Graciela Daniele.

Chita insisted on presenting the award to her dear friend personally, and heated things up by performing a spicy tango "tease" duet followed by an excerpt of Daniele's red-hot choreography Cada Noche...Tango (based on a 1998 re-staging of Tango Apasionado for Ballet Hispanico), restaged by Nancy Turano and starring the twisted, entangled trio of Julius Anthony Rubio and Jhusen Torres as "the brothers" and the sizzling Shelby Colona as "the intruder". It may not have been a pop concert but Cher (who was there in spirit) would have been in good company in the flesh.

The Off-Broadway awards were presented by Luann DeLesseps, Marilu Henner and Ethan Slater who tore the envelopes to reveal the winners. Alice By Heart topped the list with Rick and Jeff Kuperman for Outstanding Choreography and Wesley Taylor for Male Lead Dancer. Former prima ballerina Irina Dvorovenko took home the Female Lead Dancer prize for her work with Susan Stroman in The Beast in the Jungle, and the dynamic foursome who performed one of the captivating early numbers -- Steven Baruch, Mark Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel -- all but ensured the Ensemble win for Smokey Joe's Café.

Sharp-witted theatre critic, columnist and broadcaster Michael Ridel presented the notable contributions to dance in film and reflected on a comment Reinking had made backstage from what legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse had told his performers: "In a musical, when the emotion is too great, you have to sing, when it is greater still, you dance." The winners were a powerful piece called Moving Stories, Lives Transformed By Dance directed by Rob Fruchtman with Wilderness Films as producer (the name says it all). And perhaps unsurprisingly, the win for theatrical release went to Mary Poppins Returns, choreographed by Rob Marshall and John DeLuca with Joey Pizzi as co-choreographer, Tara Nicole Hughes, as associate choreographer and Marlon Pelayo as assistant choreographer. Ridel scoffed, "There are 18 of them and no one could show up?" Though Marshall, the acclaimed film and theatre choreographer and director, has been kept pretty busy with Disney, particularly with the announcement of his helming the live-action Little Mermaid, but Ridel refused to let his old pal off the hook and declared, "Next year, Rob Marshall will be hosting!"

Faye Driscoll was presented with the Douglas and Ethel Watt Critic's Choice Award by the Leeroy Reams and Patricia Watt, daughter of the legendary power couple whose presence and contributions to Broadway continue after their passing when well into their 90s. Reams, ever the jovial gentleman accepted the award on behalf of Driscoll and kept it short and sweet, much to the chagrin of the audience.

The big Broadway wins for the evening went to Ephraim Sykes from Ain't Too Proud -- The Life and Times of The Temptations, who accepted the award with sincerity and charm; the tie for Outstanding Female Dancer could not have gone to more different women, shows or enthralling dance performances, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald of The Cher Show and Gabrielle Hamilton from Oklahoma!, which further showcased the growing diversification of dancers at the top of their game on Broadway; the honor for choreography went to David Neumann for Hadestown, a show heavily favored for the Tony's. Neumann remarked on the incredible journey for the show over the past four years and gave credit to the dancers for being the ones who made his movements and concepts soar. The Outstanding Ensemble title for 2019 went to the company of King Kong, who howled and shrieked so wildly with exuberance from their win that you'd think they brought the jungle and perhaps their star, Kong himself, with them. The few of the (remarkably multicultural) cast members who spoke shared -- with deeply felt sincerity and choked back tears -- that this ensemble was the truest form of family and this recognition further solidified their bond.

A myriad of masterful techniques from many disciplines of dance, varieties and colors were showcased with rapturous performances by some of the nominated casts and individuals: a soulful rendition of "On Broadway" from Smokey Joe's Cafe; a major nod to Fosse-style and finding your own particular oomph -- "Zazz" from The Prom staring leggy nominee Angie Schworer in a role created for her; the playfully naughty and astoundingly acrobatic ploy for a lady's attention in "Tom, Dick or Harry" from Kiss Me Kate (featuring two of the three gentlemen nominated from that show); and a medley from the multiple-nominated Ain't Too Proud -- The Life and Times of The Temptations, who chose group numbers in lieu of showing off the two male lead dancers nominated.

On the note of color -- one of the most vivid, distinctive and exciting elements of the 2019 Chita Awards was the diversity reflected and indeed the full spectrum of talent being honored and spotlighted. Perhaps renaming the Awards in honor of the fiery Latina has something to do with it, but what is most interesting to note is the shift that is happening for how the stages of Broadway (on and "Off") are slowly starting to reflect the faces we see on the streets and subways -- at least in the dance departments, and at least those being awarded and recognized here. Perhaps this kind of move towards true and natural diversity onstage made famous by Hamilton is finally working its way to becoming the norm.

Two of the esteemed honorees have been carrying that torch far before it became more common and even, in some cases, trendy: George C. Wolfe (SDC Director Award for Exemplary Collaboration with Choreographers) and the recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award, Graciela Daniele.

George C. Wolfe was given a tribute in dance by the cunning choreography of longtime collaborator Savion Glover with a piece called "I'm Just Wild About Harry" from their show Shuffle Along that featured elegant, twinkling piano playing from Mark Hummel, articulated by the furious footwork and nearly inhuman ability of tap dancer Curtis Holland. Both Glover and Camille A. Brown showered rightful praise on the acclaimed, trailblazing director whose vision Brown recalled encountering when her mother took her to see Jelly's Last Jam and advised, "Watch closely, this is important to our people."

Wolfe demonstrated eloquence, articulation and sincere humility as he returned the praise from those he's worked with and beamed towards Brown, "I would love to work with Camille some day, if she's not too busy!" Wolfe's accolades and successes in theatre and film are numerous and vary from commercial to conceptual, but what's even more exciting is his fearlessness to take risks in order to promote diversity, inclusion and representation on Broadway and beyond, including one of his lesser lauded attempts to present a revival of On the Town intended to actually exhibit the multicultural melting pot that is New York City. Additionally, his commendable work as an advocate and activist has trickled off the stage and he has been distinguished for his many contributions in support of the human and civil rights as well as the arts.

Before the aforementioned tangos, Graciela Daniele a woman of many talents and dimensions as a director/choreographer - received a special treat with a "song break" from all of the dancing thanks to Brian Stokes Mitchell's sweet and rich voice that felt like liquid chocolate to the ears in a rendition of "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, a show that he worked on with Daniele and considers one of his favorites. Stokes Mitchell was joined by his wife, Allyson Tucker -- a Broadway performer in her own right -- and Mark Hummel who returned to the keys.

When accepting the award from her dear friend for decades, Daniele snuck up on Chita and poked her mischievously, like schoolgirls at play. The two have worked together on numerous occasions including The Rink with Liza Minelli, Chita's own story - Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, and Chita's most recent starring role in the darkly divine Kander and Ebb musical (with book by Terrence McNally), The Visit. Not one to ever be fenced in, Daniele has also choreographed for three Woody Allen films including two that she won back-to-back Fosse Awards for (1996 for Mighty Aphrodite and 1997 for Everyone Says I Love You). Graciela is a graceful and gracious as her name suggests and radiated with warmth and passion for her work and mission. The Argentinian speaks several languages, including the one Chita describes as "Graciela English" that her pal joked was the hardest to comprehend. Both Latina women have been appropriately described as "spitfires" and that is how Chita affectionately referred to her longtime collaborator and sister spirit. They've both enjoyed decades of careers in the dance world that have at times paralleled, intersected and intertwined. Daniele, in her acceptance speech, owned up to that title by thanking her husband for being her greatest supporter and "putting up with a Latin woman for all those years!"

The finale tied the themes that were present and pervasive (intentional or not) throughout the evening together with a big beautiful bow, plenty of joy and a glimmer of hope from the Dance Academy of North Jersey (a Star Supporter of the NYC Dance Alliance Foundation College Scholarship Program). Choreographed by Jason Luks, the 75 young dancers performed a full spectrum of dance styles in a piece aptly titled "Just Getting Started" set to the song "Colorful" by Jukebox the Ghost all wearing a gloves in variety of hues contrasting their sleek white garments. The Chita Rivera Awards honor and celebrate dancers and dance supporters, advocates and aficionados of every generation. With the continued assistance of organizations such as the NYC Dance Alliance, who knows what the future holds for these bright young performers, all working hard to keep dance alive, vibrant and indeed colorful.

Photo credit: Christopher Duggan