Round about this time of the year, dance critics everywhere get asked the question: "Can you really stand to see another 'Nutcracker'?" It's easy, when you're as mad about Tchaikovsky's ingenious and ensorcellating score as this writer happens to be. It's easier still when you're dealing with a production as disarming and beautifully thought out as Mikhail Baryshnikov's version for American Ballet Theatre. And easiest of all when the company brings to it the kind of vivacity and warmth they exhibited at last night's performance in the Kennedy Center Opera House, commencing a two-week run of the Yuletide classic.

It helps, too, that the Baryshnikov staging is still relatively young, as "Nutcrackers" go -- this is only the fifth December it's been presented here since the 1976 premiere (we missed a year due to an ABT labor dispute). The production is so rich in itself, and so amply stocked with dancing roles, that it will be many seasons before there's any real danger of its going stale on us. During this year's run, the roles, large and small, will rotate throughout the company ranks, and already last night a number of dancers were seen -- to ingratiating effect -- in castings new to Washington.

The key role of Clara, however, was taken last night by ballerina Marianna Tcherkassky, who was the first ever to dance it and still has a very special way with it. Tcherkassky has the look and the dulcet manner of a child-woman to begin with, and the tender refinement of her dancing only adds to the youthfully seraphic impression. Yet when the time comes for girlish presentiments to turn into full-blooded passion, Tcherkassky has the depth and subtlety -- even more now than when she first appeared in the ballet -- to make the transition convincing, as last night's transporting account of the Act II pas de trois made clear.

It's not just in her dancing that Tcherkassky gives particular point to the role. In myriad details of characterization, from her first diffident entrance, to the sweet lullaby with the toy Nutcracker, to her dismay at not being allowed to take the doll to sleep with her, to the budding ecstasy of her first duet with the Nutcracker-Prince, Tcherkassky makes the make-believe believable. Curiously, the one time she seemed off pace last night was in the "Sugar Plum" solo, which has always been a Tcherkassky specialty; it was a minor lapse in a performance of otherwise consummate artistry.

She had no end of expert help last night. Danilo Radojevic made his virtuosic brilliance into a metaphor for the Nutcracker-Prince's ardor, in dancing that soared and crackled from the battle with the Mice to his last whiplash solo. Frank Smith has found a new, darker coloration for the part of Drosselmeyer, the mysterious toymaker, and the Act II divertissements -- featuring Susan Jaffe and Ross Stretton, Hilda Morales and Charles Maple, Cheryl Yeager and Peter Fonseca, and Johan Renvall and Brian Adams -- were sharp in profile and thoroughly charming in feeling. Adams and Renvall, deservedly, brought down the house with their high-flying, deep-bending, Soviet-style acrobatics. The ensemble dancing was also admirable, both for precision and spirit.

Kenneth Schermerhorn led the Kennedy Center Orchestra in a most articulate and beguiling performance of the score, except for the ineffectual haste of the Overture -- seemingly an unbreakable ABT habit. Maybe one of these years we'll get a conductor who'll let us hear the rhythmic filigree of this piece in all its joyful animation, without feeling obliged to scramble to the finish line.