It's hard to know what to make of a "Nutcracker" production that's determined to be grim from start to finish.

When the curtain goes up on Rudolf Nureyev's staging of the Christmas classic, which the Berlin Ballet gave a first local showing at the Kennedy Center last night, one senses instantly that something devilishly out of the ordinary is coming. In the setting by Nicholas Georgiadis, the exterior of the Stahlbaum household presents a massive, gloomy doorway flanked by an iron-spike fence -- the sort of prospect that would prepare one for "The Hound of the Baskervilles." When, shortly thereafter, the arrival of the party guests is signaled by the sound of fist-fighting among the older boys, it's clear that this is to be a peculiarly misanthropic "Nutcracker," one so at odds with the benign traditions of this ballet as to suggest an entirely different frame of reference.

In many respects, Nureyev's departures (he first staged "The Nutcracker" in 1967) aren't that singular. Following in the footsteps of a number of Russian choreographers going back to the '20s, and not unlike Mikhail Baryshnikov in his version for American Ballet Theatre, Nureyev has attempted to forge an "adult" ballet from what started as a holiday fairy tale. aThus Clara isn't a little girl, but an adolescent on the verge of womanhood, and instead of dreaming of candy kingdoms, she has a nightmare in which she's attacked by bats and goblins who are her friends and relations in disguise. Her savior Prince, moreover, turns out to be a reincarnation of Herr Drosselmeyer, the eccentric dotard who caters to the children's fantasis and brings Clara a toy nutcracker.

It was plainly Nureyev's intention to return to the darker, "gothic" sides of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original tale -- bypassing the halcyon Dumas translation which served composer Tchaikovsky and his first choreographers -- in order to reinterpret the ballet in psychological terms for a sophisticated modern audience. However intellectually satisfying such a concept might seem, it just hasn't worked out in practice. Nureyevf has gone so far in this direction that virtually every ounce of charm in the ballet has been suppressed, and the result not only violently contradicts Tchaikovsky's music, but even fails to make sense on its own terms.

Whatever vestigial enchantment may be lurking in Nureyev's choreography, and there's not much, its effects are all but obliterated by the overpowering Georgiadis decor. Once inside the Stahlbaum residence, we're faced with a cavernous immensity whose gilt-barnacled walls and ceiling, in doomsday lighting, might be a fit setting for Nero, but have nothing at all to do with domestic civility. The endearing mice of traditional productions here become a rat pack that could have been spawned by Godzilla. And far from being green, the Christmas tree resembles nothing so much as a giant, triangular slice of burnt pizza, bedecked with candles.

In details of its steps and paterns, the choreography has all the clutter and fussiness but none of the imaginative rapture of Nureyev's work in, for example, "Romeo and Juliet" or "Raymonda." "The Nutcracker," moreover, has no roles of consequence other than Drosselmeyer (presto-chango the Prince) and Clara, and last night's combination of Nureyev himself and Eva Evdokimova in these parts was, at best, only intermittently effective. Evodokimova is too large and phlegmatic to be a very persuasive teen-ager. As for Nureyev, he was having one of his uneven nights -- in his good moments, one still saw the beauty of line and nervous scintillation which have made him one of the century's legends; elsewhere, his faltering and brittleness testified to the inevitable waning of his physical powers.

One can come away with respect for Nureyev's ideas, but that is about the only positive feeling this drag of a "Nutcracker" is apt to inspire.