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It's a fact well known to Utahns that "The Nutcracker" and children (on both sides of the proscenium) are more or less synonymous; doubly so in the Willam Christensen version of the Tchaikovsky classic, as danced by Ballet West. Christmas in Utah would not be the same without the company's annual production of this work, which plays the Capitol Theatre for 25 performances, Dec. 9-31. The Utah Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Terence Kern, will perform the popular Tchaikovsky score.

From the moment the curtain opens on the Stahlbaums' magical party, children figure prominently in the action. They enjoy the beneficence of doting parents, participate in the midnight magic of Dr. Drosselmeyer and his giant Christmas tree, and motivate the divertissements of the magic kingdom where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier reign supreme.Stage show aside, there's an equally potent drama going on behind the scenes, where 280 children in four casts, survivors of tryouts that winnowed out some 600 other applicants, enjoy the spoils of victory. To them belong Christmas delights on a level far beyond their peers; thrills that remain with them their whole lives long.

Where there are excited, ebullient children there must be order, as instilled in generations of Utah "Nutcracker" children by their coach and regisseur, Bene Arnold. Their affection and respect for Arnold is legendary, but respect alone won't hold kids in line, so Arnold enlists a fleet of adult chaperones, who help with costumes, makeup and hairdos, keep the children in their rooms until needed, and deliver them to the stage entrances, ready to enter on cue.

"I use five chaperones a performance - one each for party girls, soldiers and buffoons, and one for the older girls, in case of illness or emergency, also a man to oversee the boys," said Arnold. "The men get a big bang out of doing it, and the boys love it when their fathers help out. Then we have a terrific bunch of mother-chaperones. Almost every parent volunteers, and they stay as long as needed, until each of their children has been picked up by parents, who are occasionally very late."

Thinking that these people had a story of their own to tell, Arnold circulated a questionnaire among them after the 1993 "Nutcracker." Whether first-time chaperones, or veterans of six to eight years' experience, theirs is indeed a unique perspective, and a magical contact with their children and the Christmas spirit.

Here are some of the questions posed and various answers:

- Why do you chaperone? Donna L. Smith replied, "It's a wonderful opportunity to watch the backstage magic and support my daughters. I love it!"

"To support my son," said Carl Draper. "Having never been to a ballet before, it was interesting to see what's involved in putting it on."

"In appreciation for the time Ballet West has given my son, I just wanted to show my gratitude by helping out," said Val D. Christiansen, noting that each boy's self-esteem was increased through his participation.

"My brother was in `The Nutcracker,' and I wanted to come back after being in eight years myself," said Matthew Kennaley. "There was a shortage of male chaperones, and I jumped at the chance to get backstage," said Jeff Moon.

- Has the experience been rewarding?

"Yes, even though I had to show up for 21/2 hours, three days before Christmas, the night I'm giving a dinner party, leaving two preschoolers at home. Ha, ha, ha!" wrote Jodi Wood. "This is my only girl, and she has performed in three `Nutcrackers.' We wouldn't trade those Christmas seasons for anything. What a fun memory to cherish!"

"I have really enjoyed every chaperoning experience and would do it every time if I could. It's the icing on our Christmas cake," said Rochelle Biesinger.

- What was your funniest experience?

"Anytime something goes wrong. For example, when the mechanical mouse didn't make it across the stage," wrote Cindy Venable. "Or when the Nutcracker's head came off too soon," said Deborah Moon.

Many respondents admitted to belly laughs about mishaps on stage, as soon as they were sure no harm had been done.

"The girls were getting ready, laughing and talking and one started throwing up! I thought, what do I do now? If I had wanted to clean up throw-up I would have stayed home! The girl wasn't sick, just excited. We worked together to clean it up, then had a good laugh and all was well again," said Bonnie Barney.

- Conversely, what was your saddest experience?

"Watching the auditioning kids, back in September, being cut from the final cast," wrote Kathy B. Redd.

"Seeing children being told they cannot perform because of infringement of the rules," said Gary Schoenwolf.

"When it was over. It happened too fast!!" said Jeff Moon.

- What was your most emotional experience?

"Watching my own daughter, through the tears in my eyes, realizing just how fast she is growing up, and how much she loves ballet," said Redd.

"Just being a mom and watching my daughter perform," said Ginger Lantz.

"Sensing the anticipation of the children just before they go on stage, while they are waiting on the stairway," said Miriam Tate.

"Girls saying goodbye after their casts finish, wondering if they will ever see these new-found friends again," said Becky Tripp.

First-year chaperone Marti Johnson could not hold back the tears upon seeing her daughter dance for the first time as a soldier.

"I have come to `The Nutcracker' every year since I was a young girl (I am now 38) and have never missed a year," she wrote.

"Each Christmas Eve my whole family (brothers and sisters, parents and grandchildren, 37 of us now) come to the `Nutcracker,' then go home and open presents. We have never missed once in all these years!"

- What was the easiest part of being a chaperone?

"All of it," said Jamie Fockel.

Most saw the experience as easy, citing good organization and esprit backstage, with well-disciplined, willing children.

- What was the hardest part?

Many empathized with those who lost their chances to appear because of illness or misunderstandings, feeling the pain as if it were their own.

Some remembered with dismay the challenge of "bad hair days" with the party girls.

"There's a part of me that wishes I could have danced, too," confessed Suzi Green.

And many cited the mundane difficulty of finding a parking space for a matinee performance.

Ballet West returns "The Nutcracker" to Salt Lake City following tours to Ogden and San Antonio. They will present the seasonal classic in Vancouver, B.C., Jan. 2-7.

The Christensen interpretation, first danced by San Francisco Ballet in 1944, celebrates its 50th anniversary in America this year, it's 39th in Utah, where Christensen and Maurice Abravanel of the Utah Symphony first put it together at the University of Utah in 1955.

Dates for the 25 "Nutcracker" performances are evenings at 7 p.m. on Dec. 9, 10, 12-17, 19-23, and 27-30; matinees at 2 p.m. on Dec. 10, 17, 22, 23, 27, 28 and 31; and at noon on Dec. 24. Tickets ranging from $10-$40 are available at the Capitol Theatre box office, 50 W. 200 South, Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., or Albertson ArtTix outlets. For charge card sales, call 355-2787.