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The curtain rises for Ballet West's production of "The Nutcracker" on an old-fashioned family holiday scene. But what unfolds onstage is anything but outdated or mundane. The ballet that Willam F. Christensen put his stamp on 70 years ago is, at its core, a theater piece. Its success depends on detailed character sketches and finely tuned theatrical elements to support the storytelling that will resonate with an audience.

The magnificent Tchaikovsky score, which Salt Lake audiences are fortunate to enjoy played live by the Ballet West Orchestra, drives the choreography. Yet during some of the score's most powerful moments, Christensen's choreography yields to hand it the spotlight.

In Act I when the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer swirls and sweeps his cape propelling the story to its climax, he never upstages his theme music of trombones and tuba that later turn melodic with clarinet and cello. On opening night, and particularly in the dress rehearsal, Ron Tilton imbued Drosselmeyer with authority, rolling his shoulders and pumping his body to urge and command the Christmas tree to grow 30 feet. On other nights, BW soloist Beau Pearson has crafted an imaginative Drosselmeyer that titters between Johnny Depp's charming Captain Jack Sparrow and edgy Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

The two acts of "The Nutcracker" have very different dispositions. The realism of a cozy family Christmas in Act I shifts to fantasy in Act II. The transition occurs during a battle between giant mice and a set of toy soldiers that come to life. The resounding woodwinds that support this action-packed scene echo Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," known for its climactic cannon fire and fanfare finale. Each December, BW dancers hone the tragicomedy of the defeat of Christensen's giant mice. The costumes and humor are a highlight of the ballet, and the resolution of the scene is most poignant. The lighting softens, Tchaikovsky's strings swell to an ascending scale, and Christensen's choreography embodies the tender moment of childhood when we must leave our toys behind.

The three pas de deux are a road map for the ballet. Beckanne Sisk is radiant as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her partner-cavalier, Christopher Ruud, initiates Sisk's pirouettes with vigor and pulls her closely into him for dynamic lifts and dives. As a couple, Emily Adams and Rex Tilton respond to the Waltz of the Flowers music with refined and unhurried elegance. Arolyn Williams' pixie-light Snow Queen and the lively Christopher Sellars eagerly transport us to the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

According to dance historian Thérèse Hurley (in a collection by Marion Kent), for the Act II divertissements, Tchaikovsky imports two popular French songs for Mother Buffoon (originally Petipa's Mother Gigogne) and a Georgian lullaby for the Arabian divertissement. These selections might seem odd and even culturally insensitive now, but the nations that bordered Georgia and the cultural relationships that developed as a result of these borders, invasions and occupations give context and authenticity to the musical borrowing and choreographic references.

Some of the best performances are in the Act II divertissements, such as Chase O'Connell's jumps, multiple beats and sustained back-attitude turns in the Spanish Dance. Joshua Whitehead's athletic entrance in the Russian Dance and his very funny Grandfather (Act I) are reminiscent of a young Eddie Murphy mixed with a little of Bobby Moynihan's Drunk Uncle from "SNL."

Soloist Sayaka Ohtaki led the Mirlitons with her usual flair, musicality and flawless balance. Elizabeth Weldon is a joyous dancer with graceful épaulement. Gabrielle Salvatto is a talent looking for a challenge. And Anisa Scott, who was promoted from Ballet West II this year, is surely on her way up in this company.

So, it isn't tradition that keeps me coming back to "The Nutcracker" each year, but rather the desire to see it often enough to see into it. —

Ballet West's fine 'Nutcracker' tradition

This annual holiday show receives almost indiscernible edits and updates every year that keep it fresh and worth going back for.

When • Plays through Dec. 27: 7 p.m. on Dec. 15-19, 21-23, 26; 5 p.m. on Dec. 20; 2 p.m. on Dec. 19, 22-23, 26; and noon Dec. 20, 24, 27

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20 to $88;, 801-869-6900; Art Tix

Running Time • Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Special package • $125; "Ultimate Nutcracker Experience," which includes an orchestra center seat (within the first 10 rows), a 60th Anniversary commemorative program book and a limited-edition snowflake ornament

Sugar Plum Parties • $10; after each matinee (except Dec. 24), Ballet West will host onstage Sugar Plum Parties for children. Youngsters can join the Sugar Plum Fairy and other favorite characters from the ballet for refreshments and a special treat.