Carla Fracci, expressive dean of Italian ballet, dies at 84


Carla Fracci, Italian grande dame of ballet and one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, admired for the naturalness and emotional directivity of her performances, died on Thursday at her home in Milan. She was 84 years old.

The cause was cancer, said her husband, Beppe Menegatti.

During her five-decade career, critics and audiences alike marveled at Ms. Fracci’s ability to transcend technique, merging so completely with her characters that she seemed to become them. In Italy, she was called “the Duse of the dance”, as Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote in 1977, in reference to the great Italian actress of the 20th century Eleonora Duse.

“Pleasant alliteration aside,” he continued, “there is indeed a strong histrionic current in his performance, so that his smoothness, essential prettiness, can sometimes be torn apart by an unexpected display of almost volcanic emotivity.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, who danced with her in the 1970s, said in a phone interview that Ms. Fracci would subtly change her take of a role from one performance to the next. “She never did the same thing,” he said, “and because of that she was really alive and very complete on stage.”

She made her professional debut at the Teatro alla Scala in 1955 and quickly became a household name in Italy, where she brought sparkle to Italian ballet after languishing for decades. She became the first Italian ballerina since the turn of the 20th century to have a major international career, performing frequently with the American Ballet Theater, the Royal Ballet, and the Stuttgart Ballet, among other companies.

In the early 1970s, Ms. Fracci formed the Compagnia Italiana di Balletto with her husband. Through appearances in small towns, on opera stages and in open-air arenas, she has raised awareness of ballet in the most remote corners of Italy and inspired new generations of dancers, including Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, both of whom have become international stars.

She has also appeared frequently on Italian television specials and in 1982 played a dramatic role in a popular miniseries, “Verdi”, about composer Giuseppe Verdi, on Rai, the Italian public television channel. She played the second wife of the composer, singer Giuseppina Strepponi.

In everyday life, Ms. Fracci has struck an elegant figure, often appearing in public wearing soft, white fabrics, her dark hair parted in the middle. “She was like a figure at the turn of the last century,” Baryshnikov said.

She was most closely associated with the title role of “Giselle”, a young woman driven to madness and death after discovering her lover’s betrayal. In The Times, Anna Kisselgoff wrote about a performance “Giselle” by Ms. Fracci in 1991 (she was 55 at the time) in which “her foot barely seemed to touch the ground”.

“It was the image that others have never equaled,” Ms. Kisselgoff added, “the aerial specter that seemed to fly out of a lithograph.”

Ms. Fracci played the role for over 30 years, in her fifties, and has been associated with a long list of famous dancers including Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Vladimir Vasiliev, Ivan Nagy, Paul Chalmer, M. Baryshnikov and even Julio Bocca, 31 years his junior.

As recently as January, she was invited by La Scala to give a master class on “Giselle”. (The class was filmed and is available on YouTube.) The dancers who participated, Nicoletta Manni and Martina Arduino, had both grown up watching a popular 1969 film version of “Giselle,” starring Ms. Fracci and Mr. Bruhn, based on an American Ballet Theater production.

This film shows all the qualities for which Mme Fracci is remembered: lightness on her feet, clean technique, sincerity and naturalness which gives the impression that the dance was breathing. Equally convincing is the great beauty of her face, which she uses to the fullest.

“I studied this video from start to finish, over and over again,” Ms. Arduino said by phone from Milan. “Where her eyes looked, how she moved her arms.” And when she came to give the master class, she said to me: ‘You have to say with your eyes exactly what you think.’ “

Mr. Baryshnikov remembered this same quality. “She had those huge, dark eyes,” he says. “She danced with them. And then there was the unnatural beauty of her face. Dancing with her was a fascinating experience.

Carla Fracci was born in Milan on August 20, 1936, daughter of Luigi Fracci, tram driver, and Santina Rocca, factory worker at the Innocenti machine factory. Carla loved to dance around the house, and when she was 9, family friends suggested that she could be adapted for ballet.

Despite being small and rather frail, she was accepted to the associated ballet school at La Scala, where one of her teachers was Vera Volkova, a pupil of Agrippina Vaganova, founder of modern Russian ballet technique.

Young Mme Fracci did not take up the ballet right away. “School was a hassle and a terrible chore,” she told The Times in 1981. Then one day she found herself on stage in the role of a child.

“I was chosen as a girl with a mandolin in ‘Sleeping Beauty’,” she said. “Once on stage alongside Margot Fonteyn, I suddenly changed my mind. Dancing in front of an audience was something completely different from dancing in school.

After graduating from the academy, she joined the La Scala ballet company.

Ms. Fracci had her first big break in 1956, when she was called in to replace French ballerina Violette Verdy in a production of the “Cinderella” evening. Two years later, she became the principal dancer. The same year 1958, the choreographer John Cranko created for her the main female role of his new production of “Romeo and Juliet”. She continued to play the role several times during her career.

Very quickly, she also began to dance abroad, appearing for the first time with the London Festival Ballet, in “Giselle” in 1959. In 1962, she began another of her most famous roles, the sylph in “La Sylphide ”, alongside Mr. Bruhn. The two were regular partners during Ms. Fracci’s years as a member of the American Ballet Theater, from 1972 to 1976.

However, not all of her roles were tragic: she was also celebrated for her sense of mischief in the comedy ballet “Coppélia”.

At the Ballet Theater, Ms. Fracci’s repertoire has expanded to include dramatic ballets such as “The Moor’s Pavane” by José Limon, “Lilac Garden” by Antony Tudor and “Medea” by John Butler. In 1991, she danced the role of Lizzie Borden in “Fall River Legend” by Agnes de Mille. Ms. Kisselgoff described the performance as “plunging furiously into madness.”

As her dancing career drew to a close in the 1990s, Ms. Fracci assumed the role of director in several ballet companies, including those of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (1990-91), the Arena di Verona (1995-97) and the Opera di Roma (2000-10). She was also interested in politics, as a cultural advisor for the province of Florence from 2009 to 2014.

Besides Mr. Menegatti, her husband of 56 years and a director who had once been assistant to Luchino Visconti, Ms. Fracci is survived by her son, Francesco Menegatti, architect; his sister Marisa Fracci, also a dancer; and two grandchildren.

“For us, as Italians, she represented the importance of dance,” said Ms. Arduino, the dancer. “Not just the steps, but the purity of the art. Something precious.

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