BALLET WEST, "The Nutcracker," with Utah Chamber Orchestra, Terrence Kern conducting. Capitol Theatre, 25 performances Dec. 16-Jan. 3, evenings at 7, matinees at 2 p.m., noon Dec. 24, noon and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 31 and Jan. 3. Call 355-2787 for tickets.

Are you ready for "The Nutcracker"? Has your year revolved slowly enough so you can take in the fact that 'tis the season once again? Ready or not, here we go. And Balley West is there with a sparkling, vital show crackling with energy, and looking fresh enough to withstand a rigorous three weeks of frequently two-a-day performances.

The new production is still news, and as you might suppose, what looked radical last year has eased its way into the comfort zone. Many Salt Lakers initially reacted to "The Nutcracker's" new design like children who didn't want a line of their bedtime story changed. But by now the new look has hopefully become acceptable and even desirable, where last year it cast a shadow of discontent.

The first act party scene is a blaze of glory sometimes verging on the garish, but the Empire line of the dresses looks more graceful, with all skirts and pantaloons now the same length, and the period hair styles seem less shocking.

The mice costumes are a triumph, just made for waddling with their fat legs, and they lend themselves to the individual comedy of each dancer. Public outcry seems to have prevailed, for the naturalistic hand-painted costumes of the merlitons have given way to floppy green tutus, and Mother Buffoon's costume and face seem to be a close replica of their predecessor, if not the same.

But in general the strengths of the design, particularly the golden second act, carry the show, and promise to do so for years to come.

Again the children validate the reality of the Christmas spirit, with their dances and naive sincerity. Children are and always have been basic to Willam Christensen's "Nutcracker," and they add an indispensable dimension. Complete program listings for run-of-show make it risky to try to identify some dancers, but the Clara and Fritz of opening night went all the way into their parts and reveled in them. And Gilles Maidon brings just the right mix of mystery, menace and comedy to his mime role as Drosselmeyer.

Dancing is at its usual high level this year, from corps to principals, with many delightful moments. The Snow royalty of Lisa Lockerd and Raymond Van Mason is a model of assured grace.

The Sugar Plum Kingdom is again the scene of many fetching divertissements, beginning with a panache-laden Spanish variation and continuing with the dashing Russian men in their hopak, the spectacular Chinese acrobatics of Jeffrey Rogers with his coterie of dainty quivering maidens, and an Arabian dance both strong and sinuous by Dawn Meeker and Peter Christie. Maggie Wright and Christopher Young lead the swirling, fluid grace of the Waltz of the Flowers, one of the prettiest numbers with its pink-lavender-blue petal skirts.

Jane Wood as the Sugar Plum and Jiang Qi as her Cavalier displayed star quality in some bravura dancing and maintained the fairy tale charm of the piece. But theirs is not a natural partnership; indeed, it's even somewhat risky, because of body builds and line that don't mix compatibly..

During the coming weeks, at least three dancers alternate on almost every role, with six Sugar Plums and seven Cavaliers, equal numbers of Snow Queens and Princes, six Arabian couples, seven Flowers duos, five mechanical dolls, and correspondingly ample casting on all demi-soloist roles. Sellouts are coming up, so get your tickets early.