"The Nutcracker" isn't just a traditional Christmastime ballet but a matter of civic pride. Many communities hanker after their own productions. At Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, however, "Nuts" this year is being danced by the Donetsk Ballet, a classical Soviet company from a small mining city in the Ukraine. How come?

Baltimore's fondness for the Donetsk began last year. The troupe, on its first U.S. tour, was abandoned by its sponsors in the Harbor City, whose residents started a rescue effort that enabled the dancers to return home. First, though, they performed not only in Baltimore but also in two cities not scheduled on the original tour, New York and Washington.

Kindness was rewarded with quality. The Donetsk proved to be a company of good -- in some cases very good -- dancers who worked together as a dynamic ensemble. The repertory, while not differing from familiar Soviet fare, was staged with stylistic flair and attention to fine points. Ever since that salvaged tour, which put the fairly unknown company on the ballet map, Baltimoreans have had a paternal feeling for the Donetsk and wanted it to return.

The Donetsk's "Nutcracker," given its American premiere Wednesday and running through Dec. 30, is the troupe's sole offering during the current visit (its second to Baltimore, its third in the United States). Choreographed by artistic director Vladimir Shumeikin, this is a professional, serviceable production that's chock-full of dancing but short on mime and magic. Major assets at the opening were Inna Dorofeyeva in the ballerina role of Princess Marie, plus Tchaikovsky's score in a lively rendition by Soviet conductor Mikhail Bank and an orchestra of Baltimore musicians. Vadim Pisarev was thrilling in the air, but on the ground his forceful, quantitatively impressive dancing often lacked eloquence. Sometimes he opted for neat endings; at other times his phrasing became as disheveled as his long hair. As for characterization, his Nutcracker Prince showed no more complexity than is apt for the role of the Nutcracker Doll (performed by Alexander Kassianenko). The transformation of the toy into a sensing, human Prince ought to be something wondrous, one of the things that make attending the annual "Nutcracker" more than a duty.

Dorofeyeva offers more than a lovely lyrical line. She phrases with care and allure. Changing course as she moves, she endows steps she's just performed with an afterglow so that they linger in one's memory to illuminate those she's about to explore. Without inventing a complex character, she makes her role (a combination of two parts -- the traditional Sugarplum Fairy and the semitraditional Snow Queen) amazingly real. Marina Leonkina, scheduled to alternate with Dorofeyeva as the production's ballerina, appeared briefly at the premiere as an Indian doll and seems to be a dancer of authority. Oxana Yaruk, as the girl Marie, who dreams of snowflakes and sugarplums and of herself as a princess, danced brightly. Marie and her mother, portrayed by Valentina Letova, are gentle creatures; Sergei Svatov, as Marie's father, rules the Stahlbaum household when it's not being upset by the wizardry of the unpredictable Dr. Drosselmeyer. The choreographer, combining aspects of such stock ballet characters as the buffoon, the dancing master and the sorcerer, has made Drosselmeyer into a major dance role for Dimitri Nechayev. He turns up everywhere, even changing the Snow Duet into a pas de trois. Nechayev's Drosselmeyer is young, high-strung and busy more than brilliant in the part's many beaten steps.

In outline, Shumeikin's "Nutcracker" resembles Baryshnikov's for American Ballet Theatre. And though Shumeikin doesn't dabble with Tudor psychologizing in telling the story, the best ensemble choreography in both productions -- that for the Snowflakes -- derives from an earlier Soviet version by Vasily Vainonen. The stage picture at the Lyric isn't satisfactory because Natalia Kozdan's costumes don't complement the colors of a borrowed, incomplete set credited to Henry Heyman. Donetsk can still cast some minor roles with such able soloists as Irina Boitsova and Kassianenko, but several promising dancers from the last tour are now in American companies.