One of the nicest surprises of the Joffrey Ballet's sweet and simple version of "The Nutcracker" is the generally high level of the dancing. The Joffrey has made its reputation on reviving out-of-the-way masterpieces and commissioning contemporary choreography. It hasn't been in the story ballet business all that long, and its eclectic repertory is not the best breeding ground for classicism. Yet, despite the ballet's mixed parentage, there's nothing contemporary or eclectic looking about the Christmas-card-pretty production that's currently playing a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center's Opera House, and much of the dancing has been very classical indeed.

Thursday night, Tina LeBlanc's technically secure Sugar Plum Fairy dazzled without ever being flashy. She was gracious and warm (as the fairy-hostess of the Kingdom of the Sweets must be), and there was a pleasing softness in her arms and shoulders that suited this old-fashioned production.

The same mellow style was mirrored by the corps in the Snow and Flowers dances; whether it's a new Joffrey look or one that's Nutcracker-specific remains to be seen, but there seemed to be more attention to the musicality and flow of the dancing than is often the case with this company. Curiously, the expansiveness of the dancing, the sense that the dancers were floating on and through the music, is at odds with the often busy choreography and the curt tempo at which the score is taken.

Although LeBlanc's Sugar Plum (along with Edward Stierle's high-flying Snow Prince, repeated last night from the opening) was definitely the dancing high point of the two performances, there were other pleasures. The character dances in the "Kingdom of the Sweets" act received uniformly strong performances, but I especially liked Beatriz Rodriguez's not-too-fiery Spanish dance and Valerie Madonia's sensuous Arabian one on Thursday.

Leslie Carothers was a brittle Sugar Plum last night, and her Prince (Ashley Wheater) had some partnering problems. The two seem a poor match; his musical approach to dancing makes hers look the more abrupt. Both Wheater and Tom Mossbrucker (as Thursday's Nutcracker Prince) had great fun with the mime scene where the Prince recounts his terrible battle with the Mice.

Except for some overacting in the first act's party (by the grown-ups; the kids, imported from Iowa, are adorable), the mime throughout is wonderfully clear. The best thing of all about this old/new "Nutcracker" is that the company is content to tell a simple story simply, and do so with evident pleasure.