Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" is a yearly ritual. It's also a training ground for the students and young dancers of the company. People tend to think of it as an affair for children, but there were plenty of free-floating adults wandering through the lobby at Lisner last night for the opening performance of the season.

Small wonder. To be sure, there are touches of terror in the first act. Drosselmeyer, the wizard of clocks, wears an ominous pallor that contrasts with the ruddy well-being of the party guests, but he's a man who knows how to give a gift, and by the second act, in the Kingdom of Sweets, all terror is duly banished.

Candy soothes the soul, and if the second act of "Nutcracker" is pure surface and the architecture slightly lopsided, no one is complaining, as long as the magic keeps working.

Last night's performance was satisfactory in that respect. Mary Quinn made a fresh, convincing Clara. The mice were nice and bouncy, not too scary. Lloyd Geisler conducted the orchestra with all appropriate drum rolls.

Lynn Cote was lovely as the Sugar Plum Fairy -- firm, centered, self-possessed and glittery as a ballerina should be, though she still lacks that throwaway quality that makes for real transcendence.

John Goding, though a bit mannered in the hands, was an ardent and lyrical Snow Prince to a rather frigid Snow Queen, danced by Helen Sumerwell.

And sometimes magic mixed with reality in strange ways. During intermission, the Snow Queen and Prince perched among candy canes in the lobby and autographed programs with ball point pens topped with plastic roses.