Richard Cragun, a professional dancer who left his native Sacramento at 16 to win international acclaim as one of the leading male ballet stars of the 20th century, died Monday in a Rio de Janeiro hospital. He was 67.
Online dance blogs reported the cause of death as a seizure triggered by a lung infection. His brother Lawrence Crason told The Bee that Mr. Cragun died after several heart attacks at the hospital, where he was being treated for a recent seizure.
Although he was not as famous in his homeland, Cragun was a star in the dance world. He burst into fame in the 1960s with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany, where he worked with noted choreographer John Cranko and forged a longtime partnership with renowned ballerina Marcia Haydée. He was the first American to partner with legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
A commanding stage presence with dark, handsome looks and virile strength, he dazzled audiences with his triple tours en l'air and won rave notices for roles in "Taming of the Shrew," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Onegin."
During the Stuttgart Ballet's first U.S. tour, New York Times critic Clive Barnes hailed Cragun in 1969 as "a superb dancer, a man in the category of Rudolf Nureyev or Edward Villella."
Fluent in five languages, Cragun had lived abroad since he left McClatchy High School in 1961 for the Royal School of Ballet in London. After retiring from the Stuttgart Ballet in 1996, he was artistic director of Berlin Opera Ballet.
He moved to Brazil in 1999, started a dance company and led a ballet troupe in Rio de Janeiro. He also organized exhibitions of his works as a painter and cartoonist.
Cragun maintained strong ties to Sacramento, where he returned for triumphant performances with the Stuttgart Ballet at Memorial Auditorium in 1969 and the 1970s. In interviews, he spoke about the support he received from family and friends as he rose quickly from a local dance group to the pinnacle of ballet.
"Looking back, I think my parents hoped I would get into the San Francisco Ballet, which would have kept me close to home," he told The Bee in 1969.
Born in 1944, Richard Alan Cragun grew up with two brothers in the Land Park neighborhood. His father, Marvin Cragun, was a librarian at Sacramento City College for 31 years. His mother, Myrtle Cragun, was a former English teacher who worked as a credit union secretary.
Inspired by Gene Kelly movies, he started dancing tap at 7, took acting classes and performed at the Eaglet Children's Theater. He took up ballet under teacher Barbra Briggs, who arranged for a successful audition with the Royal Ballet School. He spent two summers at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada, before going to England.
"Having to take care of myself in London was an education in itself," he said in 1969. "I learned to take care of myself materially and figuratively and to pick and choose what was best for me. In short, I learned a way of life."
Cragun distinguished himself at the Royal Ballet School and completed his studies with influential ballet teacher Vera Volkova in Copenhagen, Denmark. At 17, he joined the Stuttgart Ballet and rose to be principal dancer at 21.
Besides his life partner, Roberto de Oliveira, he is survived by his younger brother, Lawrence Crason, a professional storyteller. He was predeceased by his elder brother, Robert Cragun, a longtime Cordova High School math teacher.
Cragun wrote volumes of long letters to his family in Sacramento about his life and his work in dance. In recent years, he created social projects for youngsters in Brazilian slum neighborhoods known as favelas.
"Rich was very talkative and creative," Crason said of his brother. "He was always down to earth and never had a big ego. He was always looking to help people."