A PAIN IN THE ARTS

Sophie Constanti suffers the little children at the ballet
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The Independent Culture
Christmas - so we are forever being reminded - is for children. Any adult who thinks otherwise is liable to stand accused of an unforgivable lack of festive goodrwill. But at this time of year, as the days grow shorter and the schedule of ballet m atinees gets longer, children pose a serious threat to the mental health of the nation's adult, daytime balletgoers.

Since late November, certain Saturday afternoons at the Royal Opera House have been appropriated by parents who seem hell-bent on allowing their kids the right - or at least the opportunity - to make ballet matinees a misery zone for everyone else. Nevermind that mummy and daddy haven't considered whether Rupert and Jemima are a) remotely interested in ballet, b) too young to appreciate it, or c) likely to behave in a manner which doesn't disturb the rest of the audience - or, for that matter, the performers.

The youngest offenders, when not sleeping through the action, are programmed to bawl - until removed by embarrassed mothers who have acknowledged (albeit too late) that the panorama scene in Sleeping Beauty isn't enhanced by a toddler's wails. It is, in fact, the well-out-of-nappies brigade which tends to form the disruptive majority at matinee ballet. Most of them, let's face it, can't even be trusted in the less formal surroundings of the cinema: years after the event, I still wish I'd done more than merely glare at the boy sitting behind me who chomped through a packet of chips during that scene in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal where Max von Sydow first encounters the figure of Death on a windswept beach.

But back to ballet. Being too small to see what's happening on stage, most children will resort to that busy dance of their own: a stand-up, sit-down, stand-up, sit-down ritual accompanied by the familiar squeaks and thuds of seats springing against backrests. And at the quietest, most serene moments of Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker or any other Yuletide fare, you will hear the tiny voices of confused and frustrated children who've lost track of the plot, followed by the whispered reprimands of anxious parents. But by then the damage is done, the atmosphere irretrievably shattered. Children who are determined to talk their way through a ballet will do just that. And more. At one matinee, I watched in astonishment as two kids exchanged and unwrapped a collection of small Christmas gifts.

Even with half-price tickets for children, stalls seats for a family of four will cost over £100 at Covent Garden. Why not invest in some ballet videos and let your children chat, snack and fast-forward to their heart's content. Better still, why not take them to see the film version of Balanchine's New York City Ballet, Nutcracker. Not only is Nutcracker the definitive Xmas ballet, but moppet-faced Macaulay Culkin (in the title role) is bound to appeal to your average six-year-old. Meanwhile adults can enjoy the film's dual pleasure of Balanchine's choreography and grown-up dancers like Darci Kistler and Kyra Nichols. Well, until some brat in the row behind decides to open a packet of crisps, that is.

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