Rita Moreno on strength, stamina and the power of a killer body


Rita Moreno addresses a crowd as part of the National Portrait Gallery's Living Self-Portrait presentation. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic July 10

Anita’s steps defined her, and Rita Moreno has never forgotten them.

Enough with words. To capture the killer pace of her “America” dance number in the film “West Side Story,” for which Moreno won an Oscar as the quick, fierce, confident Puerto Rican who survives gang rape and more, Moreno scoots over on the banquette.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

She hikes up her trousers as if she were clutching Anita’s ruffled skirt. Her sandaled feet get ready.

Sitting by a window in Jaleo on Wednesday, at the top of the lunch rush, the 82-year-old Moreno puts on a show. She sings the beats, a Morse code of jazz, “Da-da-da DA-da-da, DA-da-da!” Her feet tap out the steps, sharp and crisp. Her shoulders sway and roll. “Bam-bam-bam!” One foot sweeps to the side and Moreno throws her head back — a full-body sketch of Anita’s whirling, explosive kick — while the other foot keeps time.

Her shoulders pump, her mouth goes ya-tata, ya-tata, the feet dart out and back, swift as minnows. When she stops, her eyes are huge behind her wire-rimmed glasses; her cheeks are pink.

“It was exhausting!” Moreno says.

This is the woman who dated Elvis Presley and found him boring. She had a years-long love affair with Marlon Brando, whom she calls “a beast.” She lowers an eyelid, and her voice drops huskily.

“But he really was gorgeous, in a Roman coin kind of way.”

She had the strength to put up with a lot — racism, sexism and, eventually, ageism. She worked hardest on her dancing, turning purple and feverish in an effort to keep up with the rest of the “West Side Story” cast. Jerome Robbins, choreographer of much (but not all) of the film, was frightening, although Moreno says he wasn’t as mean to her as he was to everyone else.

But if the dancing was exhausting, her lunchtime rendition is sheer joy. A manifesto writ in wedge heels and cleavage, the skin just lightly lined. An ode to the power of muscle memory, music and strength. Her touchstones.

Moreno’s strength is subtle. It’s easily overlooked. She was in town to talk about that at the National Portrait Gallery, where she is enshrined as Anita in a photo and a film clip as part of the “Dancing the Dream” exhibit. (Her enshrinement ends Sunday, when the exhibit closes.) Afterward, she signed copies of her fluidly written book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.”

For lunch, she’s dressed comfortably in subdued colors: striped V-neck top, beige sweater, olive-green pants. Her silver hair is smooth, her skin is smooth — she looks far younger than her years — and her walk is smooth, like a dancer, pulled up and unhurried.

She is slim and petite like a dancer, too, but her glide is deceptive. Her knees are shot from all the years of dancing in high heels. Nowadays, she gyrates only to the salsa playlist in her Berkeley, Calif., house, overlooking water and mountains.

“I am the happiest 82-year-old person I know,” Moreno says. “I feel as if I’m in the prime of my life.”

That phenomenal skin? It’s her revenge. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her. She spent half her career being upset at not getting parts.

She turned down everything gang-related or hooker-related. That was a lot of turning down. In light of the rotten roles she didn’t take and the good roles she couldn’t get, Moreno’s career is a monument to strength and versatility. She earned the rare grand slam of showbiz: the Oscar for best supporting actress, a Tony (as Googie Gomez in “The Ritz”), a Grammy (for “The Electric Company” album) and two Emmys (for appearances on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files”).

She has played a lot of tough women, most recently herself in her one-woman show at the Berkeley Rep in 2011, “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup.”

Her strength built by degrees. At 5, coming from Puerto Rico to New York by boat with her mother, she spotted the Statue of Liberty holding up a “big, flaming ice cream cone.”

“Oh my goodness,” she remembers thinking, falling into a throaty Cheech and Chong accent as she tells it, “a lady runs dees country!”

Her mother ran her life. A free-spirited seamstress who’d divorced her cheating husband, she took Moreno to Spanish dance lessons and nightclub shows. A talent scout sent her to meet Louis B. Mayer — one of the Ms in MGM Studios — at the Waldorf Astoria. Mayer’s instant blurt: “She’s the Spanish Elizabeth Taylor!”

But whether Moreno played Arabians, Polynesians or Mexicans, her film roles were all the same: “You tink you fool Lolita? Ha!” Sexy spitfires with a fake accent. She’d lost her own long ago, to meld into a city that hadn’t yet experienced the great Puerto Rican migration.

But in the dancing, wisecracking, sensual Anita, Moreno finally found her own power. Here was a woman who stood her ground, who expressed her strength through her whole body.

“Anita was the very first Hispanic character I had ever played who had dignity, a sense of self-
respect and was loving,” Moreno says. “She became my role model.”

A young woman walking by outside in bright blue harem pants catches her eye through the window.

“How cute!” Moreno exclaims. “She looks like a dancer. Her little buns are very high and she walks a certain way.”

“Of course, carriage is all-
important,” she adds. Take George Chakiris, who played her “West Side Story” boyfriend, Bernardo.

“Ach!” Moreno cries, pushing away unseen other guys with poor carriage. “He was the only dancer who could compete with Astaire in one way: He had such elegance. When I see the movie, I only look at George. Talk about gliding! It’s like he never touched the floor.”

He’s in Los Angeles, making jewelry; she sees him now and then. “That skinny old fart still goes to ballet class almost every day.”

The waiter comes with plates of food, but Moreno orders more: bunuelos de bacalao — cod fritters. Prawns with garlic. “Do you have something with chorizo?” And more lemon for her water. Forget the slices: “Just bring me a half.”

Not many are left from her era of entertainers who could do it all — dance, act, sing. “Joel Grey, myself, Chita,” Moreno says, meaning Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita on Broadway. “We are truly dinosaurs. Now everyone specializes.”

The cod arrives; the waiter calls her “senorita.”

“Senorita?” Moreno repeats, with flirtatious pride. “Senorita in my dreams!” She studies the food happily.

What have we lost as performers have narrowed their breadth?

Moreno looks out the window, unusually silent. For a moment.

“What musical performers bring to straight characterizations is that physical flexibility that comes with knowing your body so well,” she says. “A lot of actors are terribly awkward. Terribly. And I think it’s so important for them, when they’re young, to work on their physical selves.

“If you can find a way your character moves, you know more about your character than you’d ever dream.”

When she played opera diva Maria Callas in “Master Class” at Berkeley Rep a decade ago, “I had to find a way for her to move. I was not familiar at all with that kind of woman who is always on display. It has a great deal to do with carriage, and the chin and the neck up high.” She lengthens her small frame upward, her neck a long-stemmed rose.

Moreno studied films of Callas to get her physicality just right. To show what she means, she holds herself formally, swiveling elegantly like a queen. “When she’d bend down, she’d bend with her whole torso.

“That’s the way a dancer moves also; the entire upper torso moves,” she says. “There’s never a collapse. They never sink, Ever. Even when they’re exhausted.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Moreno Master Class.

A few years ago, Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, asked Moreno to work with his ballerinas on “West Side Story Suite,” a pastiche of excerpts from the musical.

“I don’t think they’d ever done a contraction in their lives,” Moreno says. She rounds and broadens her back, curves her arms forward in a classic Anita move. She looks like she’s about to devour the table. “I don’t think their spines would allow them. To get them to thrash around and toss their heads was really, really difficult.”

So this tiny woman (just don’t call her a spitfire!) would draw on her flawless muscle memory and dance the steps full tilt for those 20-somethings.

“I’d say, ‘Don’t look at my steps but look at my spirit. Use your spirit!’ It . . . was . . . difficult. I’d say, ‘Come on, yell!’

“It’s not even move your arms so much as throw your arms,” she notes, with a triumphant toss of her own. “Throw your hair!”

Ask her to name stars who move well and the list is short: Christopher Walken. Cate Blanchett. “Beyoncé moves a lot. She’s astonishing, dances and sings at the same time. She is buff.”

Then there’s physicality that goes too far. Moreno on pop singer Miley Cyrus, with her crass bumping and grinding:

“That poor child; she needs guidance. The saddest thing about her is her twisted sense of sexuality. What she thinks is sexy is low and vulgar. You get the feeling that this child wouldn’t know how to make love.”

She feels for Cyrus, because Moreno knows the cost of being pigeonholed by twisted sexuality. She ran from the “sexy see-norita roles,” as she calls them. “And that wasn’t easy ’cause that was all that was offered me”: easy, ignorant, illiterate and needy women. “It was almost pornographic.”

After her talk at the National Portrait Gallery, a petite woman in the audience steps to a microphone. She tells Moreno that in 1960, she watched the filming of “West Side Story’s” magnificent opening scene on a basketball court from the fire escape of her apartment on East 110th Street.

“I had no role models growing up,” said Ada Garcia-Casellas, who is 64 and lives in Chevy Chase, Md. Her voice quivers. “But you became my role model.”

What young Ada couldn’t have known is that after winning her Oscar, Moreno didn’t work in films for seven years.

“It broke my heart,” she says. She went into therapy to quiet the little voice inside that told her, “Ha-ha, knew you couldn’t get the part.”

“My maturity is when I can tell that girl ‘scram,’ ” she says. “But she still has a strong hold.”

Later appearances on “The Muppet Show” were a delight, especially as she was raising her daughter at the time. (Moreno’s husband of 45 years died in 2010. And for the record, she says she’d rather “eat glass” than ever get married again.) Her scene singing “Fever” in her sultriest smoky voice with a hairy beast crashing the cymbals behind her still makes her laugh.

Up next: She’s making an album with Emilio Estefan, in Spanish. Among the songs she’ll sing is “Preciosa,” by Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández Marín. It’s an ode to her native island, which she visits often. She hums a few low notes of it.

“My voice has many dynamics in it,” Moreno says. She gives a flick of her hips on the banquette. “Like my little body.”

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