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A trip to the ballet is a battle with boredom for the boys

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

To the Royal Opera House for a performance of the Nutcracker. What, a column called “Down and Out” going to the ROH? Let me reassure you that, as far as being in the soup financially goes, I am still up to the eyebrows in the stuff, with extra fear and nausea for 2013 thrown in, and my lower right-hand molars are in such a state that putting anything harder than soup into my mouth makes eating a thrilling adventure. But if you know how to attune yourself to the music of the cosmos in a rudimentary fashion, sometimes little pieces of luck fall into your lap and so it is that, through the offices of the great goddess Fortuna, whom we mock at our peril, the Beloved, my children, the Estranged Wife and I find ourselves in a grand tier box.

You may care to cast your eyes again over that cast list, in case you thought they were deceiving you. Yes, that’s right: quite the blended family we are now, as the modern phrasing goes. As it was, when the freebie landed in my lap, it was the Beloved herself who suggested that the first Mrs Lezard came along too, and I thought, hell, why not?

Readers who have occasionally expressed concern in the letters pages that I have not treated the ex with perfect gentlemanly reticence or respect will be pleased to hear that such animosity or bitterness as once existed between us seems to have evaporated. We have other, and bigger, fish to fry. There are always going to be irreconcilable differences – I noticed that she has changed the settings on the car stereo so that it now tunes to something called Absolute, which as far as I can gather is a radio station whose sole purpose is to play U2’s entire back catalogue – but it is nice that, when I float the idea of going to watch the ballet with the kids past her, she not only jumps at the chance but tells the children this is a three-line-whip event.

Hard nuts to crack

I must say that I had entertained misgivings about how to put this to the children. The boys – hey, they’re boys aged 15 and 12; they’re going to have massive problems with anything that isn’t prefixed by an “i”, let alone with ballet. But I recall that even the girl has form on this, for we all recall the time she trashed the props box of her ballet school at the age of three, an age traditionally held to be the one where tutus and whatnots hold maximal appeal to the female child. Not in her case. That was at the very beginning of her second lesson and we decided that this was a battle we were happy to lose.

It is, seen from a distance, quite amusing to monitor the degrees of contempt and boredom displayed by adolescent boys when confronted by ballet. Did you know it was possible to lean back and stare aggressively at the ceiling? The 12-year-old managed it, despite my whispering fiercely into his ear just before curtain-up that any disciplinary failures on his or his elder brother’s part would be met with punishments whose severity it was beyond even my scope to imagine.

I can, alas, sympathise with the notion of antipathy to ballet. It is, as an art form – and there’s a large part of me that questions whether it is an art form, rather than a highly sophisticated form of exercise – completely nuts. All art forms require some degree of stylisation, but here it has evolved into something utterly removed from my idea of human experience. (To use Paul McCartney’s words, I may be a lover but I ain’t no dancer.) I try to think if Tchaikovsky was trying to smuggle any subversive ideas about Russian imperialism into his battle between the soldiers and the mice, or whether he is trying to enact an almost parodic distillation of the essence of the Russian imagination. Or is it just people in tights prancing about to really good music? (An EP containing excerpts from the ballet was one of only about four records I possessed as a child, and so every note has been burned into my brain, and will be among the last things to go.) The Beloved explains it to me later: it’s all about sex, duh: “a creepy uncle figure gives a girl a nutcracker – a nutcracker – and she has a reverie in which she has her first sexual experience.” Ah.

I notice, in the second act, that the boys seem to be struggling less. Afterwards, I congratulate them on their patience. I think once they had realised we weren’t going to do a runner in the interval they bowed to the inevitable. “Great,” I say, as I undo their ropes and hand back their electronic devices. “Let’s do this every week from now on.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers