By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Carla Fracci, one of the most famous ballerinas of the 20th century who emerged from humble origins in Italy to dazzle audiences in theatres around the world, has died, her family said on Thursday.
She was 84 and had been suffering from cancer.
Fracci danced with the top male stars of her age, striking memorable partnerships with Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn and Vladimir Vasiliev, and was renowned in particular for her interpretation of great romantic ballets, notably "Giselle".
In later life, she directed numerous Italian ballet companies, including in Naples, Verona and Rome, and looked to bring dance to provincial towns in order to keep ballet alive in a country where opera traditionally dominated.
"Carla Fracci has honoured our country with her elegance and her artistic commitment," Italian President Sergio Mattarella said in a statement, praising her "extraordinary artistic and human qualities that made her one of the greatest classical dancers of our time".
Fracci was born in Milan in 1936. Her father was a tram driver and her mother worked in a factory.
She joined the ballet school at Milan's prestigious La Scala Theatre when she was 10 and admitted that she found classical dancing boring until she saw the British star Margot Fonteyn perform.
"That's when a spark ignited, a spark that became a fire and that has never left me," she was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera newspaper in 2008.
She graduated from ballet school in 1954 and became a solo dancer two years later before rising to the rank of prima ballerina in 1958.
She continued to perform for more than 50 years, recalling her storied career in her 2013 autobiography "Step After Step". In it, she describes working with the great male dancers of her generation, including an often difficult 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," she wrote.
Fracci gave her last masterclass in January, at La Scala, exploring Giselle, one of the most coveted roles for ballerinas which the Italian first performed in London in 1959 and then around the world for decades to come.
"She received a delirious, flower-strewn ovation from a star-hungry audience," the New York Times wrote in a review of her a performance at the American Ballet Theater in 1991.
Fracci was married since 1964 to director Beppe Menegatti and the couple had one son, Francesco.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mike Collett-White)