"Nutcrackers" are as common now as sugar cookies: The Christmas ballet about a little girl's dream of romance and bonbons is performed by just about every ballet company and school around. But Crossroads Dance Project, which blends contemporary dance with folk dance traditions, wanted to do something different in its holiday production.

"I never found a message in `The Nutcracker,' " says Kathryn Morris Eurich, who directs the company along with Cynthia Kelly. "People come out of the woodwork to see it, and I wanted people to feel inspired."

So Eurich and Kelly came up with a new twist on the 19th-century story line. In their version, the first act opens on a group of homeless kids playing in an alley. They make their way to a wealthy family's home and sneak inside to join the Christmas Eve party going on there. Clara, the proprietor's daughter, befriends one of the street boys, and after he and his pals are kicked out by her parents, she dreams of his return. This leads into the second act, traditionally a voyage to a land of fairies and dancing confections, yet here a vision of a classless, multicultural future where kids of different backgrounds are united.

Instead of re-creating the folk dances from the classic ballet, Eurich and Kelly brought in local ethnic dance companies. The Mexican folk dance company De Colores performs, as well as the Madison Chinese Folk Dance Academy, an Israeli folk dance company and a group of African dancers. Afterward, when Clara wakes up from her reverie, she convinces her parents to invite the outcast children back to her house for Christmas morning.

Eurich says she and Kelly had reservations about staging a "Nutcracker," since both of them had seen enough of the conventional version to last two lifetimes. "For both of us, it was sort of nauseating, I hate to say," admits Eurich. But now that their retooled production is in its second year, she says the best part is seeing how the 70 children involved get along even when offstage, despite their diverse backgrounds.

"What the kids are doing onstage is like real life," says Eurich. "At first they all sat in little groups and didn't want to talk to each other. Now they're all friends; they've really blended."

CROSSROADS DANCE PROJECT -- "The Gift of the Nutcracker," Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater, 125 Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. Adults $10, children and seniors $8. Call 703/749-3390.