Last month, Puerto Rican actor, singer, and artist, Ektor Rivera assumed the role of Emilio Estefan in Gloria Estefan's autobiographical musical, "On Your Feet!" currently playing at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. He succeeded original cast member Josh Segarra, and although believably portraying one of his own idols--music mogul Estefan--Rivera fills the icon's shoes (and those white shorts, now a part of Broadway lore) differently, seeing the world through the eyes of a visual artist.
"I think that what drives me is to find motivation every day... Sometimes you cannot find motivation in certain things, even in music or acting or painting," Rivera said in a recent interview. "Some days you don't have that muse inside of you. I always try to express myself in different arts, so that I always have the motivation to be happy doing what I love."
Rivera does this through three primary forms: musical theatre, art, and music. He speaks passionately of all of these, with exuberance and dramatic use of his hands to make his point (on an earlier occasion, when we first met in Washington, DC during rehearsal for a concert at the U.S. Capitol). Rivera does so with such intensity, it summons images of famed artists who have spoken passionately about their own work, struggling to communicate the creative visions in their head. It's as if they might dissolve if not for this fiery force driving them forward creatively.
"I started, maybe at 14 years old, doing music. My first thing in music was to be part of DJs, and rapping, and the underground music," Rivera shared. "I was more in the hip-hop culture, doing graffiti in that kind of environment in Puerto Rico. I was like a rapper... After that, I studied classical art. I studied painting and graphic design. But, then I moved to another musical group, named 'Magia'. It was like a tropical musical group," he added. "I was [also] studying art and acting with a few teachers and coaches in Puerto Rico."
Rivera's vocal talents are obvious at "On Your Feet!" (especially during "Don't Wanna Lose You," and the show closer, "Megamix"), where he joins the incredibly talented Ana Villafañe and cast in telling the Estefans' story through Gloria's famed songbook.
But, offstage, he continues his work as a visual artist, with paintings and other pieces displayed in past expositions and currently for sale on a dedicated website (www.ektorriveraart.com). Rivera incorporates the human form--often nude, with sexual or otherwise suggestive undertones--and a wide range of color. To the viewer, it appears his work gravitates to two extremes: varied colors and bright, as well as black and dark greys.
"I love anatomy. I love the human body... the naked human body; the shapes of the body. I just love how we are built in life," Rivera explained. "I like interesting shapes. I like to interpret that in my art."
"The message, I want to communicate something... maybe we cannot touch or describe, but we can sense. The alter-ego, for example, I touch that in many ways," he continued. "I can [find that] through the painting and I can have a lot of messages combined... that sometimes we are one person, but inside of us we want to be another. We have a lot of layers."
Rivera also experiments with different media (canvas, glass) and forms (painting, engraving) to express this. "The glass gives me the kind of thing to express how the human being is two," or again, his emphasis on layers. And, despite his use of blacks and greys, he says, "I love to paint emotions and to make people feel good. I don't like to paint dark things... With the glass, that's transparency that is good to express."
"I always try to find new techniques to express myself. I find it fun to engrave because it's like a tattoo. One stroke, that's it. Right now I am doing engraving on acrylic glass."
Based in Puerto Rico, until briefly moving to Los Angeles before heading to New York for "On Your Feet!", I was curious if the city that has inspired so many artists and helped them advance is an opportunity on Rivera's mind; something he's hoping to take advantage of and find new inspiration here. "I want a place where I can still do painting because I can feel something different. It's very different. This place has something that you can see; art in all corners," Rivera said. "You can see the reality and the honesty of people struggling and wanting to get there [succeed] and to express themselves."
"I always want to have the time to express myself and I'm hoping that the future will be bright and beautiful in many senses."
While Ektor will likely extend his fan base now among the Broadway community, and in New York, some readers may also recognize him as a contestant on the short-lived competition show, "Q'Viva The Chosen." Broadcast in the U.S. simultaneously on FOX and Univision, the 2012 series featured Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and concert-director Jamie King as they searched for outstanding Latin performers. They traveled to 20 countries/locations, and the top contestants were brought to Las Vegas (a la American Idol) for a live competition show hosted at Mandalay Bay. The show was canceled after six episodes.
Like all performers, the business offers up highs and lows, but currently, Rivera is bathing in the glorious, bright light of Broadway, enjoying the achievement of making his debut there, portraying Emilio Estefan--someone he's admired since childhood.
"Everybody knows how Emilio opened doors for a lot of Latinos in music. Now I have this opportunity myself... You cannot image how blessed and grateful I am. A life that put me right here on Broadway doing what I love, doing a story that I can relate to myself because it is an American dream that we are trying to promote and give people. I'm living that. It's a character that I can relate to, and I am so happy to have fun every night, and dance the Conga with the original members [of Miami Sound Machine, of which there are several in the "On Your Feet!" orchestra/band] that I've admired all my life."
Steve Schonberg is the editor-in-chief of www.centerontheaisle.com and is seen regularly on NBC's "Weekend Today in New York."