THE JOFFREY BALLET has finally joined the pack, giving in to a long-standing holiday tradition -- not to mention the lure of hefty box office receipts -- by coming up with their own production of "The Nutcracker."

The $1.5 million project emanates sweetness and light, completely avoiding the dark, psychological overtones that have characterized certain versions of this classic work. Sticking close to the story by E. T. A. Hoffman and to the spirit of Lev Ivanov's choreography for the original 1892 production, artistic director Robert Joffrey and an intriguing assortment of collaborators have still managed to imbue the familiar childhood fantasy with a new twist.

For this is a "Nutcracker" set in Victorian-era America, a world in which such customs as tree trimming and the exchanging of gifts were still quite novel. Basing their overall concept on period prints, woodcuts, toys, postcards and other materials, the impressive design team of Oliver Smith, John David Ridge, Kermit Love and Thomas Skelton have given the ballet a luminous and fanciful look. The mice are fashioned after tin soldiers, Mother Ginger is a 14-foot puppet and each participant in the "Waltz of the Flowers" wears a costume representative of a particular bloom.

Also of note: the esteemed English dancer Alexander Grant portrays Dr. Drosselmeyer, the toymaker and magician central to the ballet's action. And a passel of children from both this area and Iowa (where the production had its premier) work side-by-side with the Joffrey crew.THE JOFFREY BALLET --

"Nutcracker." Through December 27 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.