In two decades of reviewing dance, I've seen about 200,000 performances of "The Nutcracker" -- the truth is, I've probably only seen 195,000 but it seems like more. Yet here it is the season once again, and once again I'm a sucker for it, like the millions of others who've made this holiday classic the single most popular item in terpsichorean history. It's a testimony to either the enduring enchantment of the ballet and Tchaikovsky's score, or the resilience of the human spirit, or more likely both.

The Washington Ballet version, as choreographed by Mary Day and Martin Buckner, has never looked or sounded better than it did last night, in the first of this year's 25 performances at Lisner Auditorium.

Whatever the residual shortcomings of this partly school-based and partly professional production, it is one that can be heartily commended for its fidelity to the spirit of the work, its gracious taste and conviviality, and its genuine theatrical and balletic values.

The most conspicuous and welcome novelty this year is that no guest artists are involved -- all the principal roles are danced by Washington Ballet soloists, bearing further witness to the troupe's splendid progress of the past several years. An announced "new" set for the second act's candy kingdom provides expanded floor space, but otherwise preserves the previous vista without improvement. On the other hand, the addition of two new men to company ranks -- Mark Neal, former principal of the Stuttgart Ballet, trained at the WB school; and Thomas Hanner, formerly of the San Franciso Ballet -- marks a distinct strengthening of the ensemble.

The staging of the opening Christmas party seems smoother and more legible than ever before, the central actions are clearly focused, and there are all manner of likable touches at the periphery. The orchestral performance is also the best in memory -- conductor Patrick Flynn kept the rhythms sharp, the tempos judicious and the overall flavor one of melodic warmth.

There were too many individual felicities in the opening-night dancing to cite them all, but for the record: Kathleen Conner was one of the most apt and charming Claras the production has seen; Eric Hampton and Natalie Moffett were beguilingly convincing as dolls; Amada McKerrow and Chrstine Matthews had enviable style and poise as the Star and the Snow Queen; Simon Dow and Julie Miles were persuasively sensuous in the "Arabian" variation; and Hilary Canary and Mark Neal made an especially fine impression in the "Waltz of the Flowers." Best of all were Lynn Cote for her lyrical eloquence and Thomas Hanner for his form and finish in the Grand Pas de Deux.