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Has it really been a year since the last "Nutcracker?" Did we really set off into the unknown last January, half fearful that we might never again return unscathed to the inviting vista of Nuremberg's winter skyline, looming before us like a Bavarian Brigadoon?

Have we really weathered the past year's ice and snow, heat and drought, colds and flu and worse health problems, troubles with kids and spouses, personal dilemmas, economic uncertainty, electioneering ad nauseam, world crises and threats to the environment, and a thousand other disquieting earthly ills, to once again find haven in the Stahlbaum's warm Christmas parlor?We have indeed, and it is with a mixture of relief and anticipation that we greet "The Nutcracker" each year; for its return marks safe passage as well as Christmas joy. For Salt Lakers, "Nutcracker" is an annual landmark whose essence remains always the same - an idealized fantasy, forever young at heart.

This year's "Nutcracker" seems to be about as good as it can get, with every dancer on opening night contributing to a spirited, exhilarating performance, greatly enhanced by the orchestra's and Terence Kern's fine musicmaking.

Having absorbed most of the changes last year that returned the choreography and concept to the Christensen original, the company seems to flow more naturally through the work this year, and several of the changes are welcome.

One applauds the alteration in Herr Drosselmeyer, who cuts the clowning that had crept in and appears as a figure of dignity, mystery, and even a little menace, a catalyst who makes wonderful things happen, and Peter Christie does a good job of bringing out these qualities. Thus his E.T.A. Hoffmann origins are better served, though he's not yet spooky enough to give children bad dreams.

A delightful bouyancy runs through this entire "Nutcracker," especially the scenes involving the children, who often do what I call "the Christensen bounce" - a little vertical jump that propels them into enthusiastic movement in such contexts as the toy soldiers' marches, or the children's party dances. Watch for this little bouncy step and note the energizing effect it has.

The beginning of the second act, leading into the divertissement, moved along vivaciously Wednesday night. The pages put out their little dance with commendable synchronization, and a more than usually animated bevy of court ladies moved quickly through their courteous greetings. The baby buffoons again charmed with their eager-to-please antics. And how does it happen that every year a kind providence provides one tyke who can burn up the stage with backwards somersaults?

One marks the beauty of Christensen's ensembles for women's corps. The Snow and the Waltz of the Flowers are elegant choreographies that fastidiously and fluently embody the music's beauty and poesy, with interesting alternations between duo, small groups and full ensemble. Rhonda Lee and Bruce Caldwell led off opening night as the Snow royalty, light-footed and silvery as frost, and Jane Wood teamed seamlessly with Christie in the gliding, floating pas de deux of the principal flowers.

As the Sugar Plum duo, Daniela Buson and Marcello Angelini once again bring an added dimension to Ballet West. Not only do they fulfill the demands of the steps with perfect ease and even thrilling dispatch, but, more importantly, they project a magical aura and a glamourous presence.

Their dancing is suffused with the inner beauty that comes from heightened imagination of the parts they are playing, a beauty that becomes visible in a flow of graceful gestures and winning expressions, as they dispense happiness and largesse in gracious handfuls.

Good dancers portrayed and danced the many small solos and variations on opening night - parts that will alternate extensively throughout the company in coming performances.

Erin Leedom made a fetching and technically ideal mechanical doll. Andrea Shaw led off as an appealing Clara, squired by Miguel Garcia as her gallant Nutcracker Prince. Pamela Robinson and Charles Flachs lent sinuous nuance to the Arabian solos, Jiang Qi brought his native dexterity to the acrobatics of the Chinese variation, and Raymond Van Mason led a men's quintet of Georgian finesse and endurance in the Russian variation.

Just one question - when are we going to get a new cake? Has that strawberry-trimmed, slightly moth-eaten extravaganza gone through all 34 "Nutcrackers?" (A small matter, true enough, but of interest to cake lovers.)

Before the performance began, Gov. Norm Bangerter read a proclamation declaring Dec. 14 Willam Christensen Day in Utah, and wellwishers gathered at a reception on stage following the performance to honor Christensen. John Hart expressed great satisfaction over the company's "Nutcracker" tour to San Antonio, where crowds filled a 3,000 seat auditorium for four performances.