BALLET WEST, "The Nutcracker," Capitol Theatre, Friday; additional performances through Dec. 31 (355-2787).

The tradition continues.

Friday night, Ballet West kicked off Willam F. Christensen's "The Nutcracker." Since the mid-1950s, the ballet has been a must-see for families around the valley.

And as always, the performance was for the children in all of us.

The Utah Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Terence Kern, gave a little yuletide flavor to the evening as it began the familiar and beloved Tchaikovsky score.

Although the first half of Act 1 yearned for more energy, the costumes, the scenery and the sets were all aglow with the Christmas spirit.

As the act progressed, however, the energy grew. By the time the mice and the toy soldiers romped around the stage, the audience was captivated.

When it came time for the Snow Queen and Cavalier to soar onto the stage, there was no lack of spirit and energy whatsoever.

Maggie Wright and Christopher Ruud danced the Queen and Cavalier with joy and brightness. Tight partnering, flowing pirouettes and confident holds and pauses highlighted the two dancers' performances.

Act 2 only added to the audience's delight.

The Sugar Plum Fairy court was all sparkling and bristling with anticipation as the Nutcracker Prince (Ross Clarke) and Clara (Chelsea Keefer) arrived in her kingdom.

The Spanish dancers wasted no time getting on stage. Nor did the mystical Arabian dancers. As always, the Russian dance was an audience favorite as the five athletic company members twisted and leaped across the stage.

Timing and grace surrounded the Merliton selection that delighted the audience.

While the crowd eventually warmed up to Mother Buffoon and her children, the audience had no problem loving the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Hakala) and her Cavalier (Hua Zhuang).

One of the weaker segments of the second act was the Waltz of the Flowers. Michael Bearden appeared to struggle with the lifts as he and Mellanie Heskett danced the familiar variations.

Hakala and Zhuang worked together well in the climactic Grand Pas de Deux. Hakala, light on her toes, delighted Clara, the prince and her audience. And Zhuang's nimble-footed strength gave concertgoers a chance to applaud in appreciation.

Although there were subtle choreographic changes, mainly in ticky-tack moments, "The Nutcracker" is still a magical performance for old and young.