WHEN "THE NUTCRACKER" ballet premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December l892, it was a flop.

"It can under no circumstances be called a ballet," declared one newspaper critic. "The production of such 'spectacles' on our stage is an insult of sorts," scoffed another.

Though all agreed that Tchaikovsky's score was splendid, what was one to make of a ballet with a real botch of a plot, a child as heroine, a ballerina who appears to dance only one pas de deux in Act II, and an endless string of divertissements? Compared to a "Swan Lake" or a "Sleeping Beauty," Petipa and Ivanov's theatricalized version of E.T.A. Hoffman's tale of the "Nutcracker and the Mouse King" seemed thin gruel indeed.

Despite its shaky beginnings, the ballet refused to die. The lure, of course, was the music; what choreographer could resist such sweeping, fanciful stuff? Stagings -- many of them truncated versions set to "Nutcracker Suite" -- sprung up in Russia, all over Europe, and eventually in this country.

Modern choreographers have put their stamp on the ballet. Balanchine's evening-length confection is an annual rite for New York City Ballet dancers and their fans; Nureyev's Freudian interpretation of the tale features a mature Clara, whose dreams veer between the childlike and the erotic; and Baryshnikov's psychodrama focuses on the two men most important to Clara -- her godfather Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince.

But the vast majority of "Nutcrackers" being performed are homey, traditional affairs. They offer ballet schools a chance to show off their students, ballet companies a way to sustain themselves financially and parents a festive way to introduce "high art" to their unsuspecting children. Herewith is a round-up of area "Nutcrackers" sure to lift your spirits by means of movement, music, visual magic or dozens of cute little boys and girls capering across the stage: