Erik Bruhn, whose technical prowess and purity of line made him one of the premier dancers of a generation that also included the mercurial Rudolf Nureyev and the exuberant Edward Villella, died Tuesday of lung cancer in a Toronto hospital. He was 57.

First known as a dancer's dancer, whose passion for physical simplicity was as widely admired as his meticulous characterization, the blond, high-browed Bruhn ultimately became a romantic idol. For many years he was paired with the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, and during that time they rivaled Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn as stage lovers. "We make a life on stage every time we perform," Fracci once said.

But Bruhn never fired the popular imagination or reached the lay audience that the demonstrative Nureyev had captured -- and good-humoredly, he admitted it. Asked by one patron why he did not turn his encores into crowd-pleasing acrobatic displays, Bruhn answered, "I do not take bows like Nureyev, madame, because I do not get paid as much."

Erik Belton Evers Bruhn was born in Copenhagen on Oct. 3, 1928, entered the Royal Danish Ballet school at the age of 9 and was made a member of the company at 19. He danced as a guest artist with the Metropolitan Ballet in London from 1947 to 1949, returned to Copenhagen as a solo dancer in 1949 and in 1950 moved to the United States to join the American Ballet Theatre, an association that would endure for more than a quarter-century.

During his career, Bruhn also danced with the New York City Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet of Britain, the Stockholm Opera Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet.

Bruhn turned down the directorship of the Royal Danish Ballet three times; but in 1967, he accepted the post of director with the Royal Swedish Ballet, where he remained until 1971.

Directing gave him a new freedom, he said later, and a broader sense of the stage. "You could almost say that when I was a good dancer I wasn't popular, and now that I'm not so good, I'm popular."

He joined the National Ballet of Canada as resident producer in 1973 and became artistic director in 1983.

More a classical interpreter than a creator of roles, Bruhn specialized in such romantic parts as Albrecht in "Giselle," the poet in "Les Sylphides" and Franz in "Coppelia."

Probably his most famous role was as James in "La Sylphide," the Bournonville Gothic that has a special place in the pantheon of Danish ballets. It was after dancing that role with the American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 29, 1971, that Bruhn, who had been in pain for years with peptic ulcers and gall bladder ailments brought on by the stress of performing, announced his first retirement. He underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer in 1972.

Bruhn came out of retirement at an ABT gala in 1975, playing character roles instead of romantic leads; but in 1976 he suffered a slipped disc, and in recent years his health had been poor. Bruhn entered the hospital nearly two weeks ago, shortly after the lung cancer was diagnosed.