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Yes, Virginia, there is a "Nutcracker" phenomenon in Salt Lake City, and it manifests itself through the thousands of people who return annually to make it a part of their Christmas celebration. And why should this be so?

Because "The Nutcracker" delivers the ambience of an old-fashioned Christmas at its best, from the moment you step into the lobby and hear the high school carolers in the balcony singing peace on earth, good will to men. The crowd is festive, the air is warm with anticipation, it's a glamorous evening on the town.Inside, you watch good to excellent dancing, hear fine music and see a delightful fantasy unfold, as you meet all those beloved characters once again. Everything is blessedly the same, yet all is fresh and new.

Prices being what they are, a family of four will shoot $30 for far-back seats in the balcony for the matinee, or a $50 bill for fairly good seats in the orchestra. And groups of 10 or 15 in the $20 seats, sponsored by well-heeled grandparents, are not uncommon. Obviously, those who return (and sellouts are frequent) perceive this as a bargain in priceless memories. And you know what? I think they are right.

Since the show's the thing on which such loyalty depends, it's comforting to know that Ballet West fields a dependable commodity. Some years are better than others, of course, but in my 12 years watching "The Nut," I've never seen a really bad one.

This yearly marathon with its 20 or more performances is the most reliable gauge of dancer progress, since so many have opportunity to perform. Here one may assess the alternate casts, spot dancers of substance, and see what partnerships are shaping up.

Of special interest this year is the stately, elegant Sugar Plum of Lisa Lockerd, who controls her willowy height beautifully, projecting classic lines and fluent grace. She and Charles Flachs, an experienced, effective dancer, make a wonderfully complementary couple.

Lisa LaManna's and Joseph Woelfel's Snow pas de deux is electrifying from the moment they dart on stage. Both are compact, strong, audience-centered dancers, and both are dancing at the top of their form.

Jane Wood continues to surmount all challenges at Ballet West, a dancer of total dependablity and beauty. She's also a fine Snow Queen, though shakily partnered by Jeffrey Rogers, who is missing some elements that are needed for strong and confident partnering. Rogers is so fine a character dancer (vivid lead Russian, jaunty mouse king, high-leaping Chinese) that one is quite determined to see him perfect the qualities that will let him claim his place as a danseur noble.

Erin Leedom accommodates to every style without limitation - the bravura of the Snow Queen, the modesty of the lead Merliton, and an exceptionally sinuous houri in the Arabian's slow, seductive movements. Peter Christie's many characters include a Drosselmeyer who commands with dignity, and a Mouse King whose cockiness shows right through his baggy suit, and smooth Waltz of the Flowers pas, with Rose Marie Wurzer as his sparkling partner.

The party children have never danced more vibrantly. Jennifer Hill makes a lively Clara, and J. Casalino III a bratty Fritz. The soldiers, spit and polished to the nines, win their battle with aplomb, and the ungainly mice squeak and quaver their way through the fight with many lovable touches.

Even the ladies in waiting look happy, and one may almost forgive the overload of pink in that scene, with so much good cheer in evidence. New costumes are reportedly in the works soon, and one hopes they will give pink a rest.