For many parents and children and all dancers throughout the land, this time of year is known as "The Nutcracker" season. Going to "Nuts," as the ballet is nicknamed behind the scenes, has become a Christmas tradition in America more than anywhere else in the world, including Russia, where it was conceived. With a bevy of productions in the city and suburbs, the Washington area may well be the global leader in this holiday rite.

Last night, this season's first "Nutcracker" was previewed at Lisner Auditorium by the Washington Ballet. Perhaps it was still too fresh from the oven. The initial scene, with its old-fashioned Christmas party, which in the past has been so pungent in Mary Day and Martin Buckner's stagings, seemed flat. However, the dancing that followed this pantomime of manners and sentiment stood out all the more strongly.

Three sleek, long-limbed young women had the spotlight roles -- Alejandra Bronfman, Bonnie Moore and Amanda McKerrow. Bronfman, with her angularity, gave a sensual twinkle to the role of the Christmas Tree Star. Moore seems to be gaining assurance and nuance with every appearance. Her dancing of the adagio in the snow scene with John Goding had a spaciousness that let the mind travel through endless forests of pine.

As the gracious Sugarplum, the ballet's fairy godmother role, Amanda McKerrow achieved a fluidity and evenness of dynamics that made her dancing -- not her -- seem to have the experience of years on stage. She has serenity in speed, clarity in the most intricate of the stepwork. What is still lacking in her performance is in the mime. Sugarplum and her Cavalier must, with a very few gestures, set the final scene as one of welcome, fulfillment, grandeur.

John Meehan, the Cavalier, was more solid in his dancing than when he was last seen in a classical part with American Ballet Theatre. But he established the right tone by his proud bearing and with a few deft motions. McKerrow will undoubtedly gain such incisiveness.

Washington Ballet's newly strengthened men's group -- Brian Jameson, Malcolm Grant, Joey Smith, Steven Baranovics, Mark Trudeau -- added dash to numerous divertissements. Since last year, young Patrick Corbin has gained immensely in leg technique and lost some of the stiffness in his torso. Vincent Wineglass' execution of the filigree shepherd's role was lively and clean.

Presumably it will only be a matter of time before the aroma of Christmas is conveyed in the first moments of the ballet. Today's scheduled performance is designated the official opening of the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" run, which lasts through Jan. 3. Other forthcoming productions of the "Nutcracker" include those by American Ballet Theatre, Virginia Ballet, and Dance for Washington.