Rivka S. Katvan captures backstage Broadway like no one else. In 1987, she put her photographic talent in the service of a good cause, joining forces with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, an organization fighting against HIV. This collaboration has resulted in a series of striking photos that embody the magic of the American burlesque stage.
In 1987, faced with the ravages of the AIDS epidemic which was decimating an entire generation, the New York entertainment world was mobilizing. The Council of Actors’ Equity Association founded Equity Fight Aids, an organization dedicated to raising funds to assist those affected by the virus. A year later, Broadway Cares was created. The two organizations merged in 1992 to become Broadway’s foremost philanthropic initiative. Since 1988, they have raised over $300 million.
When musical theatre actors do fundraising, they do it their way. The main events organized by Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS set a rhythm to life on Broadway. There is the traditional Easter Bonnet: six weeks before Easter, the troupes of the various theatres pass the hat around after the final bow. Then the actors compete on stage for two days to win awards for the “best bonnet design” or the “best presentation.” Then there are the Red Bucket Follies in the fall. And, above all, since 1992, there have been the sensual Broadway Bares: two annual strip shows, choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, which are held at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom.
The year Equity Fights Aids was created, the photographer Rivka S. Katvan was already a backstage Broadway regular. Straying by chance into the dressing rooms of The Magic Show, still as a student back in 1978, Rivka Katvan developed a passion for close observation of actors at work. For ten years, she documented their preparations and moments of relaxation; she befriended great actresses like Natasha Richardson and documented routine exercises by icons such as Elizabeth Taylor. Joining the Broadway philanthropy initiative was a natural next step. Like the actors, directors, and choreographers, she used her talent to boost the joint effort: her photos of the performances would be auctioned off to benefit the organization. Over the course of two decades, she raised over $230,000. As usual, she was also behind the scenes: “We were a big family,” says Rivka Katvan. “It’s an association I care about a lot, they are doing a great job.”
She has covered countless shows for Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS. But nothing can top her backstage shots of Broadway Bares. She has created a dreamlike series where cabaret costumes, outrageous makeup, and fancy hairstyles make the charming, mysterious atmosphere of the cabaret palpable. While Rivka Katvan’s work usually emphasizes each actor’s individual focus and psychology, the Broadway Bares series emanates a gregarious atmosphere. “As a general rule, on Broadway, actors and actresses have individual or shared dressing rooms. That’s not the case here: everyone gets ready in one big room, stars and cast members alike. Whenever I’m there, I find it truly amazing!,” says the photographer.
The nudity of the models is perhaps the element that most distinguishes this series from the rest of Katvan’s work. When photographing actors, she usually takes care to keep the most intimate photos to herself. But here, nudity is part of the show, and the actors are photographed in their striptease outfits or while body makeup is being applied: “The actors move around naked while the makeup artists take care of them. Hairdressers, makeup artists, actors: everyone works together. A photographer’s dream come true!”
In the photos, anonymous hands jut out from all sides to apply paint or touch up a costume. There is no modesty or inhibition. The effort is collegial, the bodies mingle, embrace, touch each other: one feels the happiness of collaborating for a good cause. “Before going on stage, they hold hands and pray. Everyone is enthusiastic!” The abundance of color and splendid backstage scenes teeming with life are enough to make one’s head spin. But Rivka Katvan remains focused, through her lens for the right moment: “As Henri Cartier Bresson would say, I track down the decisive moment. Out of the blue, two actors in costumes embrace. Other times, it’s the way they sit or stand.”
Rivka S. Katvan often prefers black and white for her backstage photographs. “Black and white is used to bring out the intensity of the moment. It’s a way to guide the eye.” But most of her photographs of Broadway Bares brim with color: “For me, Broadway Bares is color! Colors are everywhere.” And this explosion of color tells us something about the excitement that takes over the Hammerstein Ballroom every June. Although it is now impossible to welcome the public due to health safety concerns, the organization has innovated by offering the first online version of the show.
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.
To discover Rivka S. Katvan's work, visit her website.