On Thursday, Dec. 13, Ballet West will open its 36th season of "The Nutcracker" in the Capitol Theater. Twenty-one performances will include evenings at 7 on Dec. 13-15, 17-22, and 26-29, with matinees at 2 p.m. Dec. 15, 21, 22 and 26-29, and a special Christmas Eve matinee at noon. Single tickets are $9-$23, available at the Ballet West box office in the theater, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For mail order, call 524-8333.

Ballet West's "Nutcracker" has remained true to the original Willam F. Christensen choreography, which in turn was the first full-length production of "The Nutcracker" ever given in America. That auspicious premiere took place in 1944, when Christensen was founder and director of the San Francisco Ballet."The Nutcracker" came to Utah in 1955, when Christensen and Maurice Abravanel, conductor of the Utah Symphony, collaborated at the University of Utah. It was an immediate, resounding success and has entranced Utah audiences ever since.

Over the years, the company has toured its "Nutcracker" to cities and towns of Utah, and nationally to such places as Portland, Long Beach, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Spokane, Reno and Oklahoma City. This year's tour has included its regular season in Ogden, and far-flung journeys to Anchorage, Alaska, and San Antonio, Texas. These appearances, plus those in Salt Lake and Ogden, bring the company's total "Nutcracker" performances this year to 37.

Utah's "Nutcracker" has become synonymous with holiday magic, with parties, gifts and Christmas trees, toys that come to life and dance (or fight), ballerinas sparkling like snow or velvety as summer flowers, and a Sugar Plum Fairy and her court that create the best of all beautiful, impossible worlds.

Much of that charm lies with the music, composed by one of the world's greatest tunesmiths, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). No doubt he would be incensed at this designation, but a tunesmith he was, if turning out hit tune after hit tune is the criterion.

The maestro was notorious for his delicate nervous makeup, and often suffered great torment before and at the moment when a new composition was premiered. He was most at ease composing for orchestra, but felt compelled to write 100 songs and 11 operas, including the still-popular "Eugen Onegin." "How I agonized over the production of my operas, especially `Vakoula!" ' he wrote to his benefactress, Nadejda von Meck.

Of his three ballet scores, "Swan Lake" brought him similar torments, for it made a slow start due to mediocre early choreographies, notably in its 1877 premiere in Moscow.

In a visit to Vienna in 1877 Tchaikovsky heard the Vienna Symphony perform the score to Delibes' "Sylvia" (now largely forgotten), which moved him to raptures of self-deprecation. "My `Lake of Swans' is simply trash in comparison,' he wrote to Mme. von Meck. Unfortunately, he carried the same opinion to his grave, for he died before the St. Petersburg success (1895) in the Petipa-Ivanov version.

"Sleeping Beauty" (1889) offered a sunny hiatus for the composer, for he wrote it easily and enthusiastically, from sketches made one summer for a little holiday play for his nieces. Choreographed by Petipa for St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater, it was a favorite of two tsars - an ingratiating work that succeeded at its premiere and has since given universal pleasure.

"The Nutcracker" was another slow starter, premiered Dec. 17, 1892, and subsequent revivals in Russia failed to resolve problems of the early performances. Indeed, a recent filmed performance from the Bolshoi showed an aloof, uninspired string of variations, little related to Christmas cheer.

The Russians have apparently never known quite what to do with "The Nutcracker." It has remained for Americans to develop it into a Christmas celebration par excellence. Much of this success stems from making the most of a score that is melodic, descriptive, beautifully crafted, universally popular, and about as good as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote.

In 1891, in a partnership by then firmly established, Petipa put stringent demands on Tchaikovsky, who composed measure by measure, to exact specifications. Typical Petipa notes read: "No. 1, Soft music, 64 bars; No. 2, The tree is lit, sparkling music, 8 bars; No. 3, Enter the children, animated and joyous music, 24 bars; No. 4, The moment of surprise and admiration, a few bars of tremolo; No. 5, A march, 64 bars."

Or try this formula on your creative juices: "Enter Drosselmeyer, awe-inspiring yet comic music, a broad movement, 16 to 24 bars. The music gradually changes character, 24 bars. It becomes less serious, lighter, and finally gay in tone. Grave music for 8 bars, then pause. Repeat the 8 bars, pause. 4 bars with startling chords."

Despite these strictures, or perhaps because of them, Tchaikovsky turned out a score with which he was immediately and continually satisfied, despite early failures and, once again, a triumph that he did not live to see.

Perhaps the essential humanity of "The Nutcracker" stems from the sort of man Tchaikovsky was at heart, beneath all the nerves and insecurity, the deep depressions he was prone to.

In the foreword to "Beloved Friend," her excellent biography of Tchaikovsky, Catherine Drinker Bowen suggests his letters led her to believe that "this was Uncle Petya, coming smiling home to his sister's door, laden with presents for his nieces and nephews. This was the man who whenever he had 10 rubles considered himself too rich and gave away five; the man whom everyone adored because he was so much fun to be with, yet who was so shy he fled society like a person with a hidden leprosy. . . ."

Ella Eichenwald, a lifelong acquaintance who sang Tatiana in the first professional "Onegin," declared, "Everyone fell in love with (Tchaikovsky), women and men and children and grandmothers. A train of people used to follow him around Moscow. . . . he was the simplest man that ever lived."

Thanks to a recent grant from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, Tchaikovsky's score will be played live by the Salt Lake Chamber Orchestra. David Van Alstyne will conduct.

Sugar Plum parties will follow all matinees, where children may go onstage to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and other cast members, and enjoy refreshments. Tickets are $7.