Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of "The Nutcracker," which had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House, returned there for the fourth time in five years at yesterday's matinee performance by American Ballet Theatre, and this sparkler of a ballet -- with numbers of alternate castings -- will occupy the remainder of the company's run through Jan. 4.
Not only does the production look as fresh as if it were newly minted, but the whole artistic conception of the ballet seems even more endearing and satisfying than ever with the passing seasons. This is especially the case when, as yesterday afternoon, Baryshnikov himself is dancing -- superlatively -- as the Nutcracker-Prince, and Marianna Tcherkassky, the ballet's first Clara, brings her uniquely sweet suseptibility to the part of the adolescent heroine.
But the production's merits are widely distributed. Baryshnikov's notion of Clara as a girl on the brink of womanhood whose Christmas dream is a fantasy of idealized romance, not only deepens and ramifies the ballet's dramatic premise, but also enables all of the ballet's themes to be realized in choreographic terms. And the choreographic highlights -- including the first-act pas de deux, the divertissements of Act II (especially the Shepherds' dance), the entrancing sequence that begins with the Waltz of the Flowers and ends with the truly inspired pas de trois, then the Buffoons' dance and the bittersweet finale -- appear more and more to sum up to a unified, lucid, exceptionally gracious whole. For warmth, enchantment and musical sensitivity, it is hard to think of another "Nutcracker," including Balanchine's, that surpasses this one.
Yesterday's performance was dedicated to the late Boris Aronson, whose set designs -- mixing comfy domesticity and gentle fantasy in a harmonious web of powdery colors -- contribute in very large measure to the production's success, as do the imaginatively apposite costumes by Frank Thompson. Another significant factor yesterday was the crisp yet affectionate account of the Tchaikovsky score by the orchestra under the direction of Stewart Kershaw, who thus, far has been giving ABT its most distinguished musical guidance in a decade.
There were a few surprisingly rough moments in Baryshnikov's dancing yesterday. But who can care in the face of a portrayal as soaringly radiant as this? Some moments, by contrast -- like the closing sequence in his Act II solo coming out of a brilliant grand pirouette with a flouishing snap to the knee -- were as blindingly beautiful as anything he's ever given us.
Tcherkassky's little-girl look and angelic distraction always enhances the party scene, and her lilting cantabile in the Sugar Plum variation has never been duplicated by anyone. Victor Barbee gave aptly sinister accents to Drosselmeyer, though he lacks the avuncular joviality Alexander Minz made so much a part of the role. More sorely missed, in Raymond Serrano's performance, was the comical grotesquerie Marcos Paredes brought to the Mouse King. The individual dance variations went splendidly for the most part -- Gregory Osborne, Kristine Elliott and George de la Pena were particularly bequiling as Drosselmeyer's dolls.
The Christmas trees rose somewhat recalcitrantly in the transformation scene, and for some seconds dangled alarmingly to and fro -- it was the only untoward incident in a wholly transporting afternoon.