Carla Fracci, an Italian cultural star and former La Scala prima ballerina renowned for romantic roles alongside such greats as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, died on Thursday at her home in Milan. She was 84.

The La Scala opera house announced her death with “great sadness”, without giving a cause. Italian news reports said she had been fighting cancer.

The Milan theatre recalled the “fairytale rise” of the daughter of a tram driver who, through “talent, obstinance and work became the most famous ballerina in the world, has inspired generations of young people, and not just in the world of dance”.

“Carla Fracci was a cardinal figure in the history of dance and that of La Scala, but also a point of reference for the city of Milan and Italian culture,” the theater said in a statement.

Fracci was born in Milan on August 20 1936 and spent the Second World War with relatives in the countryside to escape the frequent bombardment of the industrialised Lombardy capital.

In a recent interview with Sky TG24, Fracci described her younger self as a “farmer”, who knew nothing of the theatre or the world of dance “much less those little shoes”.

But after the war, an observer remarked on her “grace and musicality”, recommending she try out for La Scala’s academy.

Italy Obit Fracci
Carla Fracci with Rudolf Nureyev after they performed together in Giselle in 1980 (Gianni Foggia/AP)

She was accepted at age 10, riding her father’s tram each day to the academy, and graduated in 1954, at age 18.

Her first stage appearance was in 1955 with other graduating ballet students at the close of a staging of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, directed by Luchino Visconti and starting Maria Callas.

She got her first break substituting for French dancer Violette Verdi in Cinderella the same year, and by 1958 had risen to the role of prima ballerina.

Her global fame spread immediately, with invitations to the Royal Festival Hall, followed by doors opening in the United States, even as she maintained a central role at La Scala. She was most identified with the role of Giselle, which she danced with Nureyev and Baryshnikov as well as Danish star, Erik Bruhn.

Later partners included La Scala’s own Roberto Bolle, who remembered Fracci for her “human generosity”.

Italy’s premier, Mario Draghi, called her “a great Italian”, and President Sergio Mattarella, said she had honoured her country “with her elegance and her artistic efforts, the fruit of intense work.”

She last danced at La Scala in 2000, in the role of Luce in Excelsior. She was invited back in January this year to teach a masterclass on Giselle, which was broadcast on La Scala’s social media channels and is part of a documentary by RAI state television.

“It was very moving to be back at La Scala, after more than 20 years,” she told SKY TG24.

La Scala’s general manager, Dominique Meyer, recalled her return to the theatre as “an unforgettable moment for everyone”.

He added: “We will always think of her with affection and gratitude, remembering the smile of the last days we spent together, when she felt she had come home again.”

Fracci is survived by her husband of 57 years, theatre director Beppe Menegatti, and their son, Francesco Menegatti.