Discover Ballet's Influence on Modern and Contemporary Art

Edgar Degas, Jean Cocteau, Yves Saint Laurent, and more

Learn more about the lasting impact of ballet on the fine art world.

05/05/2021     News and Film, Modern and Contemporary Art

Though many would think first and only of Edgar Degas’s famed paintings and sculptures of ballet dancers if asked to exemplify ballet’s connection to other art forms, ballet is inextricably linked to the visual arts, music, and fashion in many ways. Some of the most defining and pivotal moments in ballet’s history—most notably its 20th-century revolution—were engendered and facilitated by an artistic director’s or choreographer’s seminal relationships with leading members of other creative fields.


Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) Grande Arabesque, Deuxième TempsEdgar Degas, Grande Arabesque, Deuxième Temps, Sold for $562,000 (February 18, 2020)


In the early 20th century, the visionary founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, utilized artistic collaborations to push creative boundaries and catapult ballet—an art form steeped in, and arguably hampered by, rigid classical traditions—into the present day. Diaghilev commissioned his avant-garde artistic contemporaries—including Léon Bakst, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Coco Chanel—to create dynamic scores, provocative programs, striking stage sets, and resplendent costumes that complemented the modernity and vibrancy of the movements in his company’s innovative new productions.


Cocteau, Jean. "Theatre De Monte Carlo, Soiree du 19 Avril 1911. Ballet Russe."

Jean Cocteau, "Theatre De Monte Carlo, Soiree du 19 Avril 1911. Ballet Russe.", Sold for $5,000 (September 22, 2011)


Subsequent artistic directors of other renowned ballet companies both in Europe and the United States carried this collaborative tradition well into the middle and second half of the 20th century, calling on pioneering figures from various artistic fields to help diversify their repertoire and imbue their work with freshness and relevance. As director and choreographer of the Ballets des Champs-Élysées and the Ballets de Paris, Roland Petit worked with esteemed 20th-century artists from Max Ernst and Martial Raysse to Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle on major elements of his ballets: set design, costuming, promotional posters, programs covers, and more.


Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936-2008) Costumes de Grotesques Les Ballets de Roland Petit [with additional fashion drawing verso]

Lot 7 | Yves Saint Laurent, Costumes de Grotesques Les Ballets de Roland Petit [with additional fashion drawing verso]

Sold for $20,160


Petit also worked with music and fashion industry trailblazers Serge Gainsbourg and Yves Saint Laurent. On offer in Freeman’s May 11 Modern and Contemporary Art auction is a unique piece by Yves Saint Laurent himself, an inkwash-and-pastel illustration of ballet dancers. Costumes de Grotesques Les Ballets de Roland Petit (Lot 7) is a costume design by the legendary fashion designer, likely created for Roland Petit’s 1965 ballet Notre-Dame de Paris. The striking illustration display the designer’s maximalist design direction for the ballet: huge Elizabethan ruff collars, towering conical headpieces, and gathered sleeves that appear almost bubble-like on the dancers’ arms. Costumes de Grotesques Les Ballets de Roland Petit comes to Freeman’s through direct family descent from Nancy White, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar, to whom Yves Saint Laurent gifted this work; it serves as an excellent example of the kinds of multidisciplinary cross-pollinations ballet is known to generate.

New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine worked with multiple artists in the early phases of his choreographic career, but as he honed his trademark minimalistic style and shifted toward neoclassical ballets devoid of plots, costumes, or scenery, his longest and most meaningful partnership grew with groundbreaking composer Igor Stravinsky, whose sparse scores worked harmoniously with Balanchine’s syncopated movements. Though Balanchine often favored simple black leotards and blank backdrops, his 1970 revival of Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s score, featured colorful sets and costumed designed by Marc Chagall; the production is still part of the renowned company’s current programming.


“See the music, hear the dance.”

-George Balanchine


The generative exchange between ballet and other art forms remains just as active today; more recent collaborations of note include Maurice Sendak’s set and costume design for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker as well as contemporary choreographers pairing up with musicians working across several genres, like William Forsythe and James Blake or Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens. Ballet’s continued influence on fashion, meanwhile, is undeniable, from tulle skirts and sleek chignons to ballet flats. Dancers appear frequently in fashion magazines and marketing campaigns, while many of fashion’s most prominent houses and designers—Valentino, Christian LaCroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Dries van Noten, and Erdem, among many others—have been invited to design costumes for today’s most highly regarded ballet companies.

Over the years, opera, theater, and dance in its many forms have all provided stages upon which artistic collaborations have played out. Whether executed by Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham or Jun Kaneko and various opera companies, the art forms did not compete with one another for center stage but rather engaged in compelling dialogue, working symbiotically to challenge conventions, defy expectations, and increase one another’s expressive capabilities.