Is it association with "The Nutcracker" of tradition? Could it be a suggestion in Tchaikovsky's music? Whatever the cause, some folks are left longing for a warm, gracious and mature feminine presence in Mikhail Baryshnikov's version of the Christmas classic that American Ballet Theatre is currently dancing at the Kennedy Center.

The role at the heart of this production is that of a girl, Clara, and with several alternate casts it is fascinating to watch the latitude of possible characterizations. Cynthia Harvey, Wednesday evening, continued to build the romantic portrait she introduced last year. Leslie Browne, last night, seemed to be working on a mosaic of method acting that encompassed both the child and the adolescent. Neither achieved the impossible goal of transforming Clara into a grand ballerina part.

Harvey sprang to life the instant she stopped being a child, when she saw the Nutcracker not as a toy but as a young man. She had been pert playing with her doll, but suddenly she seemed illuminated from within. The dancing became surging, never soppy, in its lyricism. Her dream of love had the duration of one unending breath. This may have been her best performance yet.

Kevin McKenzie, in the title role, was Harvey's novel match. He brought a light melody and ease to their spiraling duets. It was like seeing Galina Ulanova and Fred Astaire waltzing through the snow.

Dancing was less prominent than drama and manner in the pairing of Browne and Patrick Bissell. Full of detailed gestures and calculated expressions, this Clara was most convincing when Browne used her acting to give the dance steps meaning. This happened when she added a rocking-the-baby quality to her glissades as she cradled the Nutcracker doll in her arms. Sometimes, though, she tended to overact.

Bissell looked magnificent as the hero, perhaps too much so for a role that does not have the epic overtones of a "Swan Lake" or even "Sleeping Beauty." His dancing still needs to be brought under control.