"Nutcracker" in April?

One has to admit it felt a bit bizarre, maybe like a Halloween pumpkin on the Fourth of July. The psychological disjunction may have discouraged quite a few potential ticket buyers, too, judging by the not small but far from capacity audience at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday afternoon, where American Ballet Theatre presented the first of four performances of the Yuletide classic.

Still, ABT hasn't performed a "Nutcracker" here for five years, and Mikhail Baryshnikov's production -- which had its world premiere in Washington a decade ago -- is as charming as ever. This was the first ballet he ever choreographed,and in many ways it remains his most distinctive and appealing. Its central ideas -- making Clara into an adolescent awakening to romance, rather than a child, and converting her role and all the others into dancing parts from the start of the ballet -- give an adult, modern twist to the fairy-tale underpinnings without sacrificing enchantment.

Of the four Claras scheduled to dance over the weekend, the first was Bonnie Moore, who had not been seen here in the role. She danced exquisitely, as might have been anticipated, but her characterization needs ripening. If she is to engage our sympathies, Clara has to be far more emotionally demonstrative in Act 1 than Moore's reticence permitted. By the time the key dance passages of Act 2 arrived, though -- especially the Sugar Plum variation and the climactic pas de trois -- she had opened up considerably, and we saw the kind of Clara, impassioned and endearing as well as technically impeccable, that Moore shows every promise of becoming.

Her Nutcracker-Prince was Kevin McKenzie (substituting for injured Johan Renvall), who, like Moore and the weekend's other Claras -- was trained in Washington. He was in splendid form, rising to buoyant heights in his second-act solo.

Throughout the first act, at least until the rousingly danced Snowflake ensemble, numerous details of characterization and choreography were blurred enough to dull the dramatic impact. Roles like Drosselmeyer and the Mouse King, for instance, demand more pungent inflection than Raymond Serrano and Eric Weichardt provided in this performance, and the dancing dolls -- John Turjoman, Deirdre Carberry and John Gardner -- were indistinct in phrase and shaping.

Things picked up appreciably with the Act 2 divertissements. Cheryl Yeager and Peter Fonseca made a disarming pair of Shepherds, though Fonseca, just recovered from knee surgery, was understandably wobbly. Particularly good, though, were Gary Giffune, Michael Langlois, Scott Schlexer and Thomas Titone as the acrobatic Buffoons; Gil Boggs and Wes Chapman in the bravura "Russian Dance"; and Nora Kimball and Ricardo Bustamante, as dashing in the "Spanish Dance" as any duo in memory. Unusual Partners On paper, the pairing of tiny Amanda McKerrow with Patrick Bissell, a dancer about twice her size, seems peculiar, but "The Nutcracker" is a ballet about dreams, and if a 12-year-old girl has to dream a Prince, why not make him the only man in ballet who looks as though he plays NFL ball in the off-season? On stage, the pairing worked wonderfully, Bissell gentle and attentive in his partnering, McKerrow's Clara falling deeper and deeper in love, mesmerized by the wonderful toy that could run and dance and throw her six feet in the air.

McKerrow has a ladylike style and a rather pallid presence when not actually dancing. But that dancing itself is chastely correct with a strength that becomes an almost moral force. One watches her as if through binoculars, constantly adjusting the scale of magnification until the dancing comes into focus; when it does, it no longer looks small in scale.

Bissell's dancing, on the other hand, could hardly be larger, his style anything but chaste. This season he's been consistently both more relaxed and conscious of technique. When he lands an air turn in a perfect fifth position, as he consistently did Sunday afternoon, it's an exciting contrast to the huge jumps that look so casually tossed off. He made a jolly Prince, as if saying to Clara, "I'm your dream; I'll be anything you want me to be."

Except for the principals, the performance left a lot to be desired. The first-act party scene looked self-rehearsed. Nearly everyone overacted and many of the party guests seemed demented, especially when they thought they were drunk (the grown-ups) or misbehaving (the children).

In dancing roles, it was a day for jumpers. Amy Rose soared through the Snowflakes' dance and the leading Waltzers (Gabrielle Brown, Chrisa Keramidas, Lawrence Pech and David Cuevas) were light and elegant, if not always in sync.