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The ballet company that employed Chanel and Picasso

By Susannah Palk for CNN
  • The Ballets Russes was founded by Russian art critic and impresario Serge Diaghilev
  • Diaghilev collaborated with artists and designers including Chanel, Picasso and Matisse
  • He revolutionized ballet as well as influencing 20th century fashion and design

In January, CNN International's arts and culture strand, icon, looks at the beautiful, punishing world of ballet. Tune in on January 27 to see Natalie Portman talk about her role in "Black Swan," Darren Aronofsky's new thriller about a ballet company and more.

(CNN) -- Glamorous, avant-garde and ground-breaking -- when the pioneering dance company Ballets Russes burst onto the Paris scene in 1909 it transformed classical ballet forever.

Headed by Russian artistic director Serge Diaghilev, the company became an instant success and one of the most exciting ballet companies of the 20th century.

Gone was the lace and tulle of the previous century. Instead dancers wore Chanel, had stage sets created by Picasso, music composed by Stravinsky and backdrops painted by Matisse.

It was a revolutionary makeover for dance. Diaghilev embraced everything modern and collaborated with a who's who of artistic greats to create a repertoire of groundbreaking ballets including the famous "Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird."

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes redefined ballet.
--Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Not only did the company boast a stunning array of modern costumes and set designs, it also set a new standard of balletic technique and style.

Hiring the world's best dancers, including Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, Ballets Russes put a halt to the steady decline of ballet across Europe and revitalized the art form for a new audience.

Although revolutionary, the company's existence was short lived and, only 20 years after it was founded, Ballets Russes was disbanded after Diaghilev's death.

But despite its short history, the Ballets Russes made a lasting impact on the worlds of fashion, design, and of course ballet.

It remains an invaluable resource to designers and choreographers today and as testament to its influence, over 200 different versions of "The Rite of Spring" have been choreographed since Diaghilev commissioned it.

A collection of costumes, set pieces and photographs of the Ballet Russes can currently be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.

Director of the museum, Mark Jones, said Diaghilev was a "groundbreaking entrepreneur."

He said: "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes redefined ballet ... Diaghilev's dedication to pushing boundaries and collaborating with the best designers, choreographers and artist of his time left an inspiring legacy."