This is the obituary I never wanted to write, and I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing it in 2021: Carla Fracci has died at 84, someone I imagined being exceptionally spritely well into her 90s. Not only was she an internationally celebrated ballet dancer and an Italian icon – as acclaimed as a pop star, even in her eighties – but she was also my great friend.
The stars aligned in recent months when La Scala Ballet’s Manuel Legris invited her back to the theatre’s rehearsal studios after an absence of two decades to work with the dancers on the ballet she was most closely associated with, Giselle. This was filmed for internet streaming and also captured for a 12-part documentary series for national television. She filmed tributes for the American Ballet Theatre’s 80th anniversary, Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 90th birthday, and for a celebration on what would have been Alicia Alonso’s 100th birthday. A big-budget biopic of her early life was also filmed, called Carla, and will be transmitted in the autumn. She was also delighted by a thoughtful telephone call from Alessandra Ferri who will soon dance a piece created for Carla by Maurice Béjart. She recorded numerous interviews over the last few months at her home, in television studios and in the foyer and museum at La Scala. It was her swansong period.
Carla was diagnosed with a tumor three years ago, but only a handful of people knew of this as she wanted to carry on with her life as normally as possible. In between covert hospital visits she travelled the world, and especially the length and breadth of the Italian boot to award prizes, receive prizes, head juries, present her autobiography, and work with students. The therapy wasn’t successful and she was given less than a year to live yet remarkably, until a month ago, she was still talking to journalists and making plans.
Away from the microphones, she had little time for talking about her own career, though she took an interest in those of others and her eagle-eye would spot the tiniest detail of the dance performances we saw. She lived in the present and had no desire to reminisce unless pushed. When I interviewed her for Dancing Times magazine last year she felt so uncomfortable talking about her successes during her early years with Anton Dolin and the London Festival Ballet, that she would turn her attention to Covid masks and her orchids in the window (note to self: don’t interview friends). In conversation, she was eager to know about what I’d had for lunch, how my mother was doing, why I was putting on weight, how work was going, or talk about her beloved son and his family. On red carpets, she was the star, but in private she was more of an observer, and a keen one at that. She could seem lost in thought sometimes, as though she wasn’t listening, but astonishingly she remembered the smallest details: after weeks she would ask about a long-forgotten pulled muscle or an ailing houseplant; she loved plants. Her husband, the director Beppe Menegatti, would take the floor at home, sometimes to her exasperation with his occasionally racy or provocative anecdotes.
Over the past couple of years, she started looking back on her career for the first time, enjoying YouTube videos of her dancing and the photos sent to her on her mobile – WhatsApp became a favourite companion though her phone was often accused of destroying messages and contact details on its own. She would ask if she really had been such a good dancer that people still remembered her, and she would marvel when reminded that when she made her debut as Kitri at 44, she danced the role six times in seven days (eight if you count the open dress rehearsal). Just a month ago after seeing Mauro Bolognini’s film The Lady of the Camellias with her and Isabelle Huppert (Carlo Orlandi and I took it for her to watch as she hadn’t seen it since it came out in 1981) she started tugging on her jawline and neck saying, “My face never used to be this square, maybe I should have one of those facelifts!” We then started laughing about the thought of her with siliconed lips.
On 19 March, we accompanied her and Beppe to La Scala where a handful of people had been invited to watch the recording of the ballet company’s tribute to Rudolf Nureyev, one of her most famous partners. We had a little picnic sitting in our box during a pause as filming took several hours; she was childlike in her appreciation of such things, like a trip to a simple Chinese restaurant where no one knew who she was. But at the end of the five-hour session, she was extremely tired, although she politely chatted to the techies and wardrobe staff who hadn’t seen her for several years. Her 91-year-old husband and Carlo were already in the piazza in front of La Scala as Carla and I slowly shuffled away from the stage door. “Look how badly I’m walking,” she said as she left the theatre for what would be the last time, a building she’d first entered aged 10, “I really must do some pliés when I get home.”
born in Milan, 20 August 1936 – died in Milan, 27 May 2021
Carla Fracci OMRI OMCA (born Carolina) was an Italian ballet dancer and actress. Thanks to her extensive career and her acclaimed interpretation of ballets such as Giselle and La Sylphide, Fracci became one of the most experienced and recognised interpreters of Romantic ballets. In 1991, when she danced Giselle for the last time at the American Ballet Theatre, with Julio Bocca, the New York Times wrote,
Carla Fracci, as Erik Bruhn once said, gave the world a new idea of the ballerina in 19th-century Romantic ballets. He meant that Miss Fracci’s theatrical sense and quality of dancing created a magic that was all her own even if it did not fit standards of correctness passed down by others.
… on Thursday night Miss Fracci returned to the title role with Ballet Theater after more than 10 years. She received a delirious, flower-strewn ovation from a star-hungry audience.
The Italian ballerina, who will be 55 years old in August, had the 24-year-old Argentine prodigy Julio Bocca as her Albrecht. To say 30 years made no difference in energy level and style is untrue. This Albrecht was merely in love with an older woman, who looks as remarkably young as she is beautiful.
… In the final series of swift lifts, her foot seemed barely to touch the floor. It was the image that others have never matched, the airborne wraith who seems to fly out of a lithograph.
During an exceptionally long career, she danced with an astonishing number of partners including Rudolf Nureyev, Vladimir Vasiliev, Fernando Bujones, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Gilpin, Attilio Labis, Patrick Dupond, Jacques d’Amboise, Denis Ganio, Julio Bocca, Gheorghe Iancu, Massimo Murru, Roberto Bolle, Andris Liepa, Paolo Bortoluzzi, Alessandro Molin, Paul Chalmer, Vladimir Derevianko, Nils Kehlet, Fleming Flindt, Ivan Nagy, James Urbain, Desmond Kelly, Charles Jude, Mario Pistoni, Miloard Miskovitch, Wayne Eagling, Stephen Jeffries, Antonio Gades, Richard Cragun, Jean Babilée, Eric Vu-An, Michael Denard, Anton Dolin, Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, Igor Yebra, Walter Venditti, Roberto Fascilla, Peter Schaufuss, and Erik Bruhn.
In her autobiography, she was extraordinarily forthright about Nureyev:
Dancing with Rudy was, in itself, a challenge: a great dancer and choreographer but also a very difficult man, competitive, eccentric, fickle, unpredictable, moody, temperamental, sometimes so awful as to behave badly onstage with those who were dancing with him.
He loved putting his partners to the test. It was necessary to be stronger than he was and to come out victorious, if this wasn’t the case he would crush you, annihilate you.
Nureyev was an important presence in her career, but Margot Fonteyn was an inspiration from when, as a girl, she played a page with a mandolin in Sleeping Beauty with Fonteyn at La Scala. She remembers how, after the first act, Frederick Ashton arrived on stage to correct the position of Fonteyn’s little finger which he thought was held too high and too straight.
I realised the importance of having a maestro follow and correct you, and how that sort of teaching is essential.
Fracci considers Fonteyn her ‘spiritual mother’. In July 1981, when the La Scala company toured to the States for the first time, bringing Nureyev’s version of Romeo and Juliet, Fracci and Nureyev had the luxury of Dame Margot as Lady Capulet.
Margot was an exquisite human being with an unending sensibility… With all the ups and downs, the truth was that Rudy and Margot loved each other deeply.
Born in Milan in 1936, Fracci began dancing at age of 10 at La Scala’s Ballet School and graduated in 1954. Among her teachers at La Scala were the Russian dancer Vera Volkova and the English head of the ballet school, Esmée Bulnes. She was promoted to soloist of La Scala’s ballet company in 1956, and to principal in 1958. Other companies she appeared with include the London Festival Ballet (1959, 1962), the Royal Ballet (1963), the Stuttgart Ballet (1965), and the Royal Swedish Ballet (1969). She was a principal guest artist with American Ballet Theatre from 1967 until 1991.
Fracci worked also as an actress. As well as the 1981 film La storia vera della signora dalle camelie (The True Story of the Lady of the Camellias), she played Giuseppe Verdi’s wife Giuseppina Strepponi alongside Ronald Pickup in the 1982 television series Verdi, and Tamara Karsavina in Herbert Ross’ 1980 film Nijinsky with Alan Bates and Jeremy Irons. She approached all her dancing roles as an actress:
When I dance I am removed from myself. I’m no longer Carla Fracci but Juliet, Giselle, Cinderella… And the emotion changes each night – this happens to me as it does to the audience because we’re human and can’t always be the same. My performance changes according to how I feel, how my partner inspires me, the music and the audience.
But what would I be on stage if I wasn’t loved offstage, if I didn’t live life, if I wasn’t touched by emotions, fears, hopes and delusions? I am often told that my way of dancing moves the audience, and this is the compliment I like the best. If I can move the public it means that I myself am moved: a perfect technique isn’t enough to make a great dancer.
Starting in the late 1980s, she directed numerous major ballet companies in Italy: first was the ballet company of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. From 1996 to 1997 she directed Verona Arena Ballet Company. In November 2000 she became the director of the Rome Opera Ballet where she remained until 2010. There she presented the company’s traditional repertoire, as well as Diaghilev’s works for the Ballets Russes, Millicent Hodson’s recreation of The Rite of Spring, and Andris Liepa’s versions of Shéhérazade, Petrushka and The Firebird.
Fracci was the Councillor for Culture for the Province of Florence from June 2009 to 2014, and in 1983, 2000, 2003, and 2020, she was awarded prestigious honours from the Italian Government, acknowledging her achievements.
I have had the fortune to know the world of dance and be part of it. Nature gave me a slim body, a pleasing neck and shoulders, and a youthful smile… I was able to improve my speed, my technique and the lines of my legs; on stage, I have been both a butterfly and a tiger, sweet and passionate, childlike and aggressive. My life has been surrounded by poetry, wonderful music, and many maestri both on and off stage who have never left me feeling alone.
Many choreographers created for her, especially considering that she was not stable at one theatre. They include John Cranko, Mario Pistoni, Roland Petit, Gillian Whittingham, Maurice Béjart, Mauro Bigonzetti, Jeffrey Cauley, John Butler, Ugo Dell’Ara, Derek Deane, Wayne Eagling, Erik Bruhn, Loris Gai, Alicia Alonso, Robert North, Alberto Mendez, Glen Tetley, Milicent Hodson, Miloard Miskovitch, Paul Chalmer, Carolyn Carlson, Gabriel Popescu, Luc Bouy, and Alfredo Rodriguez.
In 2013, her autobiography, Passo dopo passo. La mia storia, written together with Enrico Rotelli, was published. In it, she wrote:
We are born and we die. It’s inevitable. We begin our career and we know that it will end. Few continue to work into old age; it depends on how you look after yourself, your character, your personality… I like to eat a slice of salami, drink a glass of wine, and keep things tidy and well ordered. I like living, and I am afraid to leave my loved ones and not be able to satisfy my curiosity as to what sort of life my grandchildren will have.
Looking at a photo from the 1940s, she said,
The smile of that little girl in the tutu tells you everything I’ve said [in this biography], and everything that I will never say, and maybe things that I don’t even know. I’d like all children to have my fortune and the strength to not fall by the wayside. That little girl’s smile I’ll see forever on the lips of my son Francesco.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.