OF THE MANY artistic pleasures Mikhail Baryshnikov O has afforded us, not the smallest is his version of "The Nutcracker," which is endearing in ways that go beyond even the plethora of charms that have given the ballet in all its many incarnations such pervasive appeal. American Ballet Theatre chose Washington as the place for the world premiere of Baryshnikov's production, which took place at the Kennedy Center Opera House six years ago almost to the day -- in the meantime, he has become the troupe's artistic director. Tonight, ABT begins its annual two-week run of "Nutcracker," and the time seems ripe for a reconsideration of the special qualities Baryshnikov has succeeded in infusing into this perennial holiday classic.

Like virtually everyone else who has mounted a "Nutcracker," Baryshnikov has stuck to the magical score by Peter Tchaikovsky which assuredly figures heavily in the ballet's enduring popularity. The choreography, however, is entirely his own invention (with the exception of the lovely "Snowflakes Waltz" by Vasily Vainonen), and hence unlike the many versions, including George Balanchine's, which have borrowed liberally from the "traditional" choreography Lev Ivanov created for the ballet's first production in St. Petersburg in 1892. And though the story derives clearly from the original, E.T.A. Hoffman-based libretto, Baryshnikov has given it a number of crucial twists.

Though Baryshnikov's production remains excellent entertainment for children, what he has given us is essentially an "adult" version, in several senses. Dispensing with the long stretches of pantomime traditional in the opening Christmas party scene, he has instead designed a "Nutcracker" that is danced from beginning to end. Professional dance technique is required throughout, and as a consequence, there are no actual children on stage -- all the youngsters are portrayed by dancers. Clara, moreover -- the juvenile whose Christmas Eve dream is the kernel of the plot -- becomes an adolescent experiencing the first thrilling stirrings of womanhood, and her dancing role encompasses all the choreographic opportunities doled out in other versions to the Snow Queen, the leader of the "Flowers" Waltz, and most importantly, the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In conventional versions, Clara is a little girl who dreams that her toy Nutcracker changes into a young Prince, that she helps him vanquish an army of fearful mice, and that as a reward she is taken to his Candy Kingdom, where dancing sweetmeats celebrate her virtue. Baryshnikov has deepened the obvious psychological resonance of all this, and its possible Freudian overtones, by bringing Clara to the verge of womanhood -- she is now the dancing partner of a "real," adult Prince, and their increasingly romantic involvement becomes an adumbration of her full physical and emotional maturity. Further, Drosselmeyer -- the mysterious toymaker who has presented her with the Nutcracker and transformed it into the Prince -- is no longer just a kindly eccentric, but rather a father-figure who tends her metamorphosis from child to grown-up, and who, in the key scene of the production, becomes a kind of rival to the idealized lover represented by the Prince.

This key scene is the pas de trois towards the conclusion of Act II, to the music of the grand adagio reserved in conventional versions for the duet of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. In its place, Baryshnikov provides a dance trio for Clara, the Nutcracker-Prince and Drosselmeyer in which the dramatic narrative is brought to a crisis point and vividly expressed in choreography of exceptional lucidity, unity and eloquence. The music itself, departing from a melody that falls step by step down the scale through the whole space of an octave (think of the phrase "falling in love"), is a series of vertiginous ascents and descents that serves as tonal analogue of Clara's emotional see-saw, torn as she is between the dream of love and the actuality toward which Drosselmeyer must recall her. At the end, she is lifted vertically aloft by the Prince, who spins her faster and faster while he lowers her to his knee; with the final plummeting chords of the music, her head drops to his shoulder and her arms encircle him. Baryshnikov has not only devised a dance statement that matches the pathos and grandeur of Tchaikovsky's adagio, but thereby as well given the entire ballet a sublimity few other versions approach.