When Carla Fracci passed away last May, La Scala intendent Dominique Meyer and Ballet Director Manuel Legris stated that the theatre would celebrate her with a special event, that would become an annual date. A due tribute to her memory, but also a sort of late amends as, in 2016, La Scala had almost forgotten to celebrate the ballerina’s 80 birthday except for dedicating the opening performance of Giselle scheduled that season – a poor thing for an artist who had given so much to the house. Memory instead is the pillar on which culture can build its progress: to honour the special ones who enlightened the arts through their genius should be an incontrovertible mission.

Carla Fracci in Romeo and Juliet
© Erio Piccagliani (1965)

For the first Gala Fracci, Legris chose to present 13 excerpts from ballets she performed on the Milan stage in almost 40 years from 1960, when she danced Balanchine’s Symphony in C, until 1998 for L’Heure exquise by Maurice Béjart: a truly sentimental journey into the different ways through which Fracci embraced theatrical dance, passing from the Romantic roles she embodied with a unique style to the dramatic pieces she enlightened with her human sensibility. In this sense the programme seemed carefully considered, every piece representing a truly significant step in Fracci’s career. Introduced by photos of Carla herself in those pieces (at the vision of her in Giselle, whose Pas de Wilis opened the evening, the public immediately both applauded and sighed) the gala reserved almost forgotten gems, like the Fanny Elssler’s Cachucha, here performed with witty coquetries and whirling torso by Caterina Bianchi, or the pas de deux from Jean Coralli’s La Péri, recreated in Romantic French style by Loris Gai and here embodied with lively expressiveness by Martina Arduino, partnered by Marco Agostino.

Caterina Bianchi in Cachucha
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Fracci’s partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, who created several ballets for La Scala, was widely celebrated. His Nutcracker (that Carla, as she often recalled, only just back from maternity leave, was challenged to learn in only five days before the premiere) was finely represented by the corps de ballet in the intricate Waltz of the Flowers and by the principal dancers Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko who executed all the tricky balances of the Grand pas de deux with regal assuredness. The Sleeping Beauty (that Nureyev created in 1966) was remembered through the Rose Adagio performed by Agnese di Clemente with Gabriele Corrado, Christian Fagetti, Edoardo Caporaletti and Mattia Semperboni, while Romeo and Juliet signed for La Scala in 1978 by Nureyev, and performed by Fracci with Margot Fonteyn as Lady Capulet, was evoked by its idiosyncratic Balcony Scene, frantic more than exquisitely passionate, but danced with intensity by Marco Agostino and Vittoria Valerio.

La Strada
© Marco Brescia | Teatro alla Scala

Searching for new roles to explore her dramatic possibilities, Fracci also gave immortality in dance to Gelsomina, the simple-minded girl sold to Zampanò, a brutish street artist, in a desolate Italy after the Second World War, as told in Federico Fellini’s La Strada. The ballet was created in 1966 with an interesting, realistic approach by Mario Pistoni on Nino Rota’s famous tunes and, thanks also to Fracci’s heartbreaking portrait, became one of the rare Italian choreographic works of that time to become well known worldwide (the other is Excelsior, danced here by Mattia Semperboni and Camilla Cerulli). The excerpt from La Strada was led by Caterina Bianchi and Gioacchino Starace, while the duet between Gelsomina (Antonella Albano) and Il Matto (Massimo Garon), the only man who feels tenderness towards her.

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L'Heure exquise
© Silvia Lelli (2021)

In her late 50s, Fracci continued searching for nuanced roles. It was a pleasure to see again a long extract from Roland Petit's Chéri, based on Colette’s novel; a duet in balance between Lea’s melancholic awareness and her young lover’s blind passion, revived with sincere intensity by Emanuela Montanari and Nicola Del Freo. One of the higher moments of the evening, L’Heure exquise, from Beckett’s Happy Days, was here revived by the unique ballerina who can give back Fracci’s dramatic intensity standing alone, still, immersed in a dark stage: Alessandra Ferri. Her stature of artistry, really one of a kind, reminds us of the true meaning of star quality in dance. 

Marianela Núñez and Roberto Bolle in Onegin
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Ferri, with Carsten Jung, and the bright Marianela Núñez with Roberto Bolle (for the waltz from Roland Hind’s Merry Widow and the Mirror pas de deux from Cranko’s Onegin) were indeed the only guest artists of the evening, after the cancellation of Svetlana Zakharova and Olga Smirnova. So Fracci Gala resulted in a truly Scala-made tribute, performed by all its dancers with lovely devotion (not the same can be said for the orchestra, playing badly with an awful disequilibrium under Valery Ovsyanikov’s baton). With such home-grown performances, Fracci would surely have appreciated the tribute all the more.