Carla Fracci, wat op ouderdom oorlede is 84 of cancer, was Italy’s prima ballerina of the 20th century. She was admired throughout the country, where she danced in many cities, at summer festivals and on television. From 1967 she became a regular guest with companies such as American Ballet Theatre, but her first loyalty was to Italy.
In discussing ballerinas who were key to national identities, Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp noted in Ballerina: The Art of Women in Classical Ballet (1987) daardie: “Fracci speaks for Italian dance, for something both gracious and graceful. Her warm temperament and style recall Italian bel canto in balletic terms.”
From the 1960s, whenever new ballets were created in Italië, it was the hope of the choreographer and producer that Fracci would wish to be part of the project, and she played a vital role in securing a stronger appreciation of ballet in Italië than it had had in the first half of the century.
Fracci was universally acclaimed as a great Romantic dancer, she could skim, apparently effortlessly, across the stage with incredible lightness, but she was not so at ease with the academic ballets of Marius Petipa.
She was nevertheless a great interpreter of dramatic work and, as a recent collaborator, the choreographic reconstructor Millicent Hodson, gesê, what was “most amazing about Carla was how she could so perfectly create the 19th-century Romantic style and at the same time constantly change style with a wide variety of ballets and choreographers. She was always totally present in whatever she was doing. That may be why she could cover such a range of styles so convincingly.”
Born in Milan, she was the daughter of Luigi Fracci, a tram driver, and Santina Rocca, a factory worker. To avoid bombing during the second world war, Carla was sent to stay with relatives in the countryside. Returning to Milan after the conflict she was accepted by the ballet school attached to La Scala.
It was in May 1949 that Fracci took the opportunity to appear as a mandolin-playing page in the Sadler’s Wells Ballet production of The Sleeping Beauty on tour to Italy. It was Fracci’s first stage appearance and the first time she had seen ballet independent of opera. Margot Fonteyn danced Aurora and was a revelation to the 12-year-old Carla: “It was then I really knew I wanted to become a ballerina. I looked and looked at her. I studied her every move … That’s when I really began to work very, very hard in my ballet classes.”
In 1954 Fracci graduated into the ballet company at La Scala. Her breakthrough came in 1957 when she substituted for Violette Verdy in the title role of Cinderella and the following year was promoted to ballerina.
The same year Anton Dolin was reworking his Pas de Quatre, originally a divertissement for a quartet of ballerinas of the 1840s, for the Nervi festival in Genoa. Noting the rising star’s resemblance to Fanny Cerrito, who had danced in the original, Dolin asked the young Fracci to join the established ballerinas Alicia Markova from Britain, Margrethe Schanne from Denmark and Yvette Chauviré from France in his production.
It was this that launched Fracci’s international profile. Dolin invited her first to dance at Londen Festival Ballet’s annual birthday gala, then to join the company. He loved to present audiences with contrasting ballerinas, and cast Markova, Chauviré and Fracci to perform consecutively in Giselle.
This encouraged critics to compare their interpretations. Clive Barnes admired Fracci, who “looked for all the world like the debut of a girl destined to make her mark on the role”. Giselle was a part that Fracci constantly reinterpreted throughout her career, and earlier this year she was invited to return to La Scala to give a recorded masterclass on the ballet.
While Dolin was championing Fracci, the choreographer John Cranko also recognised her talents, casting her as the heroine, Belle Rose, in The Prince of the Pagodas, when he took it from Covent Garden to La Scala in 1957. The following year he created Juliet in his first Romeo and Juliet, premiered at Verona for her. He then took her to the Edinburgh festival to dance his Secrets. Further revealing her versatility, Fracci danced in 1960 with Léonide Massine’s Balletto Europeo at Nervi.
During her long career, Fracci danced with most of the male superstars of the ballet. Her partners included Rudolf Nureyev, with whom she danced The Sleeping Beauty, La Sylphide (recorded in the 1972 documentary I Am a Dancer) and Juliet in his Romeo and Juliet, also filmed. She introduced Mikhail Baryshnikov to Italy at the Spoleto festival in 1975 in John Butler’s Medea; a duet that meditated on rather than retold the legend.
Other partners included Vladimir Vassiliev and later Roberto Bolle, but it was with the Danish danseur noble Erik Bruhn that Fracci formed one of the great dance partnerships of the 20th century. It was a combination of opposites, described as “a meeting of ice and fire”. He was blond and restrained, she dark-haired and sprightly, but for a decade – following their first joint appearance in 1962 when he invited her to dance an extract of La Sylphide with him on the US TV show The Bell Telephone Hour – they had a perfect rapport.
It was a partnership that took her to and flourish at American Ballet Theatre, where memorable roles also included the soubrette Swanilda in Coppélia and Caroline in Antony Tudor’s subtle Lilac Garden. A quarter of a century after her debut there, she danced the dramatic role of The Accused (Lizzie Borden) in the 1991 revival of Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend and the same year was still dancing Giselle, now partnered with the Argentinian Julio Bocca.
In 1964 Fracci married Beppe Menegatti, the theatre and opera director, librettist and producer, whom she had first met at La Scala when she was 17 and he was Luchino Visconti’s assistant. In 1969 she gave birth to a son, Francesco, now an architect.
The partnership with Menegatti was more than domestic as he presented Fracci in many productions, including The Seagull, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Blood Wedding. Fracci was also remarkable as a dancer-actor in evocations of the world of early 20th-century dance commissioned by Menegatti: a homage to Isadora Duncan, with the dance inspired by paintings by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, in Adieu et Au Revoir (1990), and Images d’Ida Rubinstein (1999).
These were collaborations with Hodson and her dance and design parnter Kenneth Archer, who also reproduced a range of their Ballets Russes and Ballets Suédois works for the ballet companies Fracci directed at San Carlo, Naples, the Verona Arena and Rome Opera. It was for Fracci that they first mounted their Jeux (after Vaslav Nijinsky) – at Verona in 1996 – which was then staged at the Royal Opera House in 2000.
Fracci is survived by Beppe, Francesco and two grandchildren.