For those weary of apartment living, office parties and singles bars, for all those who can't go home again, as well as for children, the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" offers a spell of old-fashioned friendliness, wonderment and fun.From the first moments -- a dark snowy evening, as the guests arrive outside a substantial family house that's all aglow -- this production creates a sense of intimacy. The audience is invited into the house, where everyone on stage - students and supers as well as the professional actors and dancers -- is at ease. It is just the right atmosphere for the Christmas party that opens the door in this classic ballet to a world of dreams.

Watching those dancing dreams at Lisner Auditorium last night, balletomanes felt like family friends on an annual visit. Mary Day's and Martin Buckner's "academic" choreography is an excellent way to tell how the "children" have grown.

Amanda McKerrow has really shot up.At age 16, she's gained the strength to sustain her fine-boned form. In the Snow Scene, she glittered to her partner John Goding's musicality without overwhelming his presence. Robert Wallace took to the air as leading Candy Cane; in a year of baby ballerinas, we may soon have a ballerino too -- he's 14. Among the seniors, Kacy O'Brien showed new authority as she led Waltz of the Flowers, but others weren't at their best. Lynn Cote was a strong yet not fully stretched Sugar Plum, and her cavalier, the elegant Simon Dow, seemed badly placed in his variation. Nor was Vincent Wineglass his sprightly self. It will be a long run (to Jan. 4), and with the stimulus of the Tchaikovsky played live, more perfect performances are likely to happen.