A critic is perhaps never so useless as when it comes to "Nutcracker" reviews. This ballet has become so firmly entrenched a holiday tradition that people would go see it if it were danced by salamanders.

Some productions of this 19th-century Tchaikovsky ballet adhere to the original scenario; others go to great lengths to update the ballet, or imbue it with layers of deep psychological significance. No matter what is done to it, "Nutcracker" always seems to work, partly because of its marvelous score and partly because the story never seems to bore children, no matter how many times they see it.

The Washington Ballet's handsome production of "The Nutcracker," which received its season's premiere last night at Lisner Auditorium, is a traditional one, but it is traditional-charming rather than traditional-dull. The first act's party is mimed and danced at a leisurely pace, and although there is always something happening to keep one's interest, the ballet never seems rushed or busy. The second act's divertissements are danced partly by students, partly by the company's professionals. Among the many charms of the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" is the chance to see the company's teen-agers and aspirants in their first "starring" roles.

Last night, there were minor mishaps -- a recalcitrant cannon and some slippery snow -- and occasional moments of confusion that will be smoothed out in future performances. But, for the most part, the evening went well, and this is one production of "The Nutcracker" that truly serves both child and adult.

Although the dancing in the divertissements was at times uneven, there were many bright spots. Lynn Cote, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, was gracious and mellow, dancing clearly and musically. Bonnie Moore and Malcolm Grant were the Snow Queen and King, and the choreography allowed Moore to show off her beautiful line and Grant his high jumps. The Waltz of the Flowers was particularly well-performed and the trio of leading women (Moore, Alejandra Bronfman and Hoon Sook Pak) is perhaps the strongest this production has ever had.

The Candy Canes were led by Robert Wallace, a youngster with an amazing jump. A newcomer from China, Xing Bang Fu, partnered Mary Barton in the Mirlitons divertissement with grace and style, and Susan Rolfe showed an assured arabesque in the role of the Christmas Star. The leading children's roles were performed charmingly by Kristina Windom as Clara, the girl with the wonderful dreams; John-Carlo Paolillo as her mischievous brother, Fritz; and Patrick Corbin as the Nutcracker Prince. Corbin has performed his role for several seasons and has almost outgrown it; he has matured and danced his short solo with considerable strength. As always, the Mother Gigogne and the Cook scene stole the show, largely because of a tiny boy named Philip Toro, who has wonderful comic timing.

"The Nutcracker" will be performed through New Year's Eve.