At Christmastime, Ballet West's "Nutcracker" is one of the greatest joy rides in town, as many sold-out houses testify. And samplings of five performances indicate that the company has not shortchanged any audience in enthusiasm and vitality; they've been up and on every time I've seen them.

This too is the time when unfamiliar names on the fall programs become identified with real bodies and faces, for almost everyone gets some good parts in "The Nutcracker," and a chance to show what he or she can do.Ballet West has lost a number of stalwart dancers during the past year, and they are missed. But many fine new performers have joined the company, and exciting soloists have progressed up through the corps. Rather than dwelling on the expertise of the principal dancers, which is regularly noted, this review will be devoted to some of these developing artists.

A talent that can't be supressed belongs to Maggie Wright, who dances both Sugar Plum and Snow Queen this season. Maggie has star power, she's strong and charged with electricity, and she moves beautifully to the music, letting it dictate the nuances of her movement. The smile is coming, but the face needs to soften even more for complete audience communication. Richard Bradley is her exciting cavalier, moving ever more powerfully in his turns and projecting a romantic image.

Jiang Qi and Jennifer Demko are ideal as the Sugar Plum and Cavalier, with complimentary compact bodies, daring physical prowess and elegant sheen to their movements. Jiang is a hard worker, who has commendably mastered the intricacies of western partnering since coming to Ballet West.

The Waltz of the Flowers pas de deux, a stepping stone for corps dancers with soloist potential, displays some dancers to keep an eye on. Melanie Watts teams with Bradley with long-stemmed grace and vivacious communication. Sarah Parsons and James Dlugokinski give a smooth golden aura to the dance - sweet, smiling and confident. And lead flowers Leslie Ann Larson and Christopher Young are the epitome of youthful high spirits.

One doesn't stop to rave individually about the dancers' lifts and jumps, fish poses and fouettes. They all do them, with mastery ranging from satisfactory to superb. Technique that was possessed only by soloists when I began watching ballet (not saying how many years ago!) is now expected of, and accomplished by, every corps member.

The lighthearted Chinese variation holds not terrors for Jeffrey Rogers, Christopher Young, Jiang Qi or Cameron McNinch, all of whom twist and quiver like wire dolls. And the Russian trepak always brings major applause for its spectacular, low-to-the-floor stunts. In the Arabian variation, Dawn Meeker comes closest to the sinuous seductiveness needed, with Peter Christie as her masterful sheik.

The company's enthusiastic freshness is the more admirable, since the women's corps dancers are hard-worked, often dancing in three or four ensembles large or small during a performance without any sense of fatigue.

The party scene stays zippy, with all Claras, Fritzes and children of the several casts offering their best. Bruce Caldwell, Peter Christie and Steven Mueller as Drosselmeyer mix mystery and magic, and the mice and soldiers put on a lively battle, timed to perfection.

The orchestra under David Van Alstyne performs Tchaikovsky's beloved score with authority and spirit; though the thin and stringy synthesizer tone will never take the place of live singers in the Snow.

Dlugokinsky, Kristopher Payne, Young, McNinch and Jeffrey Harris are romantic Nutcracker Princes - a role perhaps underestimated, since it is static, but one that has its moments of magic. And the graceful pages who open the second act, gone for a time, have proved their scene-setting worth.