Innovative, Passionate and Guided by Love, Kiki Lucas Pays Homage to Chita Rivera

Innovative, Passionate and Guided by Love, Kiki Lucas Pays Homage to Chita Rivera

Point Park University Faculty Showcase

In the vibrant world of dance, where creativity intertwines with tradition, choreographer Kiki Lucas stands out for her remarkable understanding of how any audience member can be pulled into a storyline and learn the history of another human being. As part of her journey to pursue her MFA from Montclair State University, she delved into the storyline of the legendary Chita Rivera.  

With a career spanning decades and numerous accolades to her name, Lucas has carved a niche for herself by paying tribute to the iconic Rivera through her choreographic endeavors. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for opening and closing night at the Point Park University Faculty Showcase in Pittsburgh, PA and was in awe!

In this article, we paint a picture of the profound influence Chita Rivera had on Kiki and explore how Lucas infuses Rivera’s essence into her choreography.

What inspired you to create this homage to Chita Rivera?

I have come to realize that my mind is constantly being enriched with new knowledge and techniques to elevate my artistry. As someone who struggles with focusing on a single subject for research, I deliberated on various ideas over the span of two years. However, my unwavering admiration for the legendary Chita Rivera ultimately prevailed. I have always found a profound connection to her journey and have been inspired by her resilience and advocacy for women in the entertainment industry. Her performances and life story have served as a source of motivation throughout my own dance entertainment endeavors. When I made the decision to dedicate my research to her, I never imagined that she would pass away just before my premiere. Like many icons, she appeared immortal, and her loss came at such a pivotal part of my process… it honestly felt unreal.

How would you describe Chita Rivera’s influence on your own choreographic style?

Chita Rivera’s unparalleled style is truly ineffable. She brings every facet of being to the stage – a quality that cannot be learned but only admired. What sets her apart is her profound connectivity with the icons of music, choreography, jazz dance and Broadway. Her life has served as an inspiration for artists across various disciplines for many years. Throughout my career, her versatility has been a guiding light as well as a huge inspiration for this particular work. I didn’t just want this to showcase dance because she was so much more than that. She was, in essence, the heartbeat of the world of dance and entertainment.

What elements of Chita Rivera’s performances did you aim to capture in your work?

I took it upon myself to acknowledge that even a brief 20-minute tribute would barely scratch the surface of Chita Rivera’s remarkable life. This is precisely why I concluded with the poignant lyrics from the iconic stage-to-film adaptation of Sweet Charity, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” The essence of her legacy and purpose seemed to align with this legendary trio moment, from to her final curtain call, embodying the sentiment of “I’m going to rise, venture forth, and truly live it.” My intention was not only to enlighten the audience on lesser-known aspects of Chita Rivera’s life but also to highlight the diverse talents that my students often don’t have the opportunity to showcase, especially within the realm of dance. It has been a personal passion of mine to harmonize these various artistic disciplines. Furthermore, I have always been fascinated by multi-media storytelling, recognizing our immersion in this digital age, hence incorporating nostalgic clips and visual enhancements to underscore pivotal moments in her life and career. While paying homage to her well-documented successes, I also sought to shed light on her challenges, intimate moments, and less publicized anecdotes that contributed to the tapestry of her narrative.

Can you walk us through your creative process in developing this piece?

It’s like an out-of-body experience. I’m honestly still even realizing that it actually happened. The thing with art is it often happens so quickly that you don’t even take the time to embrace or reflect upon the work until later down the road. The physical process itself was short. I went quickly from auditioning my cast in mid-January 2024 to rehearsals the following week, to hitting the stage on February 14, 2024. I went into rehearsals each day with an idea of music and props that I knew I wanted to use. I actually started with the larger dance-focused pieces because that is actually the “easy” part for me. It was the building of the visuals, the storyline, and how I was incorporating singing and live music that I had to really wrap my mind around. I sat up for hours developing the multimedia aspect and the music and story timeline until I felt that I had it just right. I even built in the moments of silence for Hailey to sing and that’s how we practiced it. I wanted it very much to be ONE cue to work from and with the amount of elements that I used, that was no easy task.

This piece is definitely sitting on my chest, screaming at me every day to take it another inch farther. Her story and style are more than deserving of being told, shared, and developed in my art to the next level… whatever that means.

What challenges did you encounter while choreographing (if any), and how did you overcome them?

That answer changes with the wind. I find that every new piece, idea, cast, risk etc., brings forth a whole new set of question marks. I know I’m a HUGE work in progress in finding the capability to accept that things must change or be adapted. When I have a strong visual in my mind and if it doesn’t work out, I absolutely have to tell myself to chill out. I also know that my passion for accomplishing my vision is worth any effort. I get determination like that from idols such as Chita Rivera and her fiery alter ego “Dolores” (her birth-given name). Another one of my many connections to the icon. I can quickly go from Kiki to “Kijaunta” (my birth-given name). Two COMPLETELY different individuals. Everyone knows Kiki, but Kijaunta will appear at those special times when life brings challenging moments.

My biggest obstacle was incorporating multimedia into the work. I’m very lucky of how patient William “Buzz” Miller from Point Park University was. He is our Theatrical AV/IT Manager at the University. The time and effort he put into this, the many early meetings to get things right. I couldn’t be more grateful for his efforts. These new collaborative experiences within my journey are what I live for.

What do you hope audiences will take away from experiencing your tribute?

I truly wanted the audience to leave with a greater appreciation and a few new memories of Chita Rivera’s incomparable talent while showcasing a new sense of her truth, depth, and complexity as an entertainer, a woman, and as a fantastic human.

How do you balance paying tribute to Rivera’s work while also infusing your own artistic voice into the choreography?

The piece would have never happened if I had spent too much time trying to accomplish this question. There’s NOTHING that I can create that captivates her magic. I chose to showcase moments of her life while trying to captivate the complexity and brilliance of her essence. I was bowing internally the entire time I was creating. My artistic voice will always be a part of my process and is a continuous work in progress. I don’t sugarcoat or change myself for anyone, but I had to shake off the nerves of admiration that I have for Chita while creating this. I honestly cry at just the thought of her on stage. She does something to me that I will never be able to explain. It’s an appreciation that lies deep within my heart and soul.

Were there any specific moments or performances from Chita Rivera’s career that served as primary inspirations for you?

Geez, everything. Specifically, I will say that even when I was in high school, I played “Rosie” in Bye Bye Birdie, and then West Side Story was my first professional gig after college with Civic Light Opera. I would be lying if I didn’t say that a considerable part of my soul won’t rest until I get to play Anita. The thought of it takes my breath away.

I’ve always appreciated that Chita Rivera began as a very technically driven dancer, and although that never changed, it allowed her the confidence to pursue so much more within the art of entertainment and dance.

In what ways do you think Chita Rivera’s legacy continues to shape the landscape of dance and musical theater today?

This question is literally, my thesis statement for my MFA that I’m currently obtaining from Montclair State University. While I’m researching my findings in depth, I can absolutely state that she broke boundaries for communities, for women, for dancers, and for hope, forever. She was the originator of so many roles and her legacy lives through people constantly trying to obtain any amount of her infectious talent. We will forever turn to her contributions as a source of guidance and inspiration. Her legacy has touched many people and artists from all generations. Chita Rivera’s name will forever be spoken as long as Jazz and Broadway exist.

What are three words you would use to describe the past two months from auditions to rehearsal to stage?

Proud. Invigorating. Curious.

Whether choreographing for stage productions, concert dance, or running auditions across the country for Point Park (future) students, Lucas infuses her creations with the timeless elegance and dynamism that define Rivera’s performances. Through her choreography, Lucas ensures that Rivera’s legacy continues to inspire and uplift audiences.

After the curtain went down on the final performance, I was able to discuss in length with her cast of dancers, who had the most enjoyable words to describe Kiki Lucas:

“Persistence, ecstatic, connected, thorough, genius, visual, supportive, backbone (strong).”

“Kiki has and continues to be a special lady. Always allowing her dancers, the person, personality of each individual cast member to shine bright, mentoring them and reeling them in so her vision comes out.”

In discussions with her dancers, you can feel a sense of admiration, love and attentiveness to Kiki and all that she does. Her dancers all felt her passion due to her transparency – which is a guided love. “All of us are portraying the story she is passionate about and what we are passionate about. Kiki’s transparency is a guided love. I felt really honored to be in this piece, her guidance throughout all of this is just really inspiring and it makes you want to be that much better, to fulfill her vision because it’s gratifying for all of us. I am so honored to be a part of the work,” says Abby.

In discussions with the process of learning the history of Chita, Jaiden had this to say “The process was very fun and relaxing, and I feel like Kiki made it very collaborative. It’s not her giving us information, it’s back and forth, which is really nice working with choreographers. I really enjoyed that, having it relaxed and fun and working together.”

How Kiki’s cast interprets the emotions behind the choreography…

Hailey – “Her (Lucas) connection to Chita as an icon and as human is what drew me in and intrigued a lot of us. Kiki’s piece wasn’t just about her big moments, more about her private moments.”

Reuben – playing the role of Sammy Davis Jr. – “Kiki’s guidance and mentorship is what really helped me to portray this role in such a bigger way.”

Abby – focusing on the character for the opening scene to fuel the movement.  “Focusing on what the section was emulating for showcasing Chita’s lifestyle. The projections were great aid, to allow emotions to come through, but not relying on it and embodying it.”

All in all, I think one of the best lines came from dancer Abigail regarding working with Kiki on her homage to Chita Rivera: “I would say that working with Kiki and even the last four years, she’s very, very personable, caring, and you feel very like taken care of. Not even just in this process but in general throughout our journey – us seniors who are leaving, it feels very fulfilling and very comforting to know that we not only were a part of this process but her journey as well.”

“It feels like she’s graduating with us, which is cool.” And that is exactly what Kiki Lucas is about to do.

In the grand tapestry of dance, Lucas weaves threads of innovation, passion, and expression, enriching the art form with her unique vision. As we conclude, we’re left with a profound appreciation for Kiki’s dedication to her craft and the transformative power of movement. Her words and attention to movement resonate not only with dancers but with anyone who seeks to explore the depths of human emotion through the language of dance. With Kiki Lucas at the helm, the future of choreography shines bright, promising new horizons of creativity and inspiration.

About Kiki Lucas

Kiki Lucas is an accomplished Assistant Professor of Dance at Point Park University, specializing in jazz technique, contemporary partnering, and dance composition. She has served as the Resident Choreographer and company member of dance companies such as Met Dance Co. in Houston, TX and Mosaic Dance Project in Miami, FL. Kiki’s choreography has been showcased at prestigious venues including Jacob’s Pillow, The Kennedy Center, Wright State University, Western Michigan University, Dreyfoos School for the Arts and many more. Kiki has also made an impact on the international dance scene, through teaching engagements in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Uruguay, and Mexico. She currently serves as faculty for Universal Ballet Competition.

About the Author:

Jessica Walz, a freelance writer for Inside Dance and alumna of Point Park University, holds a Bachelor of Arts in dance. With a foundation in movement and expression, Jessica crafts compelling narratives that resonate with readers on both emotional and intellectual levels. Her unique perspective, honed through her studies and experiences, infuses her writing with depth, creativity, and a distinctive voice.

Photo credits: License © All rights reserved by Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University. Chita Rivera images by photographer Mark Simpson

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