Yet another "Nutcracker"?

Ah yes, but with a difference.

The spanking new $1.5 million production of the Tchaikovsky holiday classic that the Joffrey Ballet will bring to the Kennedy Center Opera House Wednesday night is going to be an American "Nutcracker."

Which is to say, among other numerous distinctions that promise to make the Joffrey version special, the ballet will be set in 19th-century America, rather than the customary German or vaguely continental ambiance, and an American look will pervade all aspects of the design. Tiny American flags, for instance, will be perched among the candles and candy canes on the branches of the Christmas tree in the ballet's opening party scene.

It may strike many as odd that the Joffrey company should be doing any kind of "Nutcracker," despite the amazing streak of popularity that has given the work a unique place in our ballet heritage. For more than two decades, yuletide productions of "The Nutcracker" have been such a widespread staple of ballet activity in this country that it would be hard to imagine the season, or the American ballet scene, without it. What Handel's "Messiah" is to classical music, "The Nutcracker" has become for classical ballet -- as characteristic and beloved an emblem of the Christmas spirit as holly wreaths or Saint Nick.

The original "Nutcracker," planned by Marius Petipa and then choreographed by Lev Ivanov upon the former's illness, was first performed by Russia's Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater in 1892, the penultimate year of Tchaikovsky's life. Critics of the time were dismissive, but the ballet persisted in the repertory. When Maryinsky ballet master Nicholas Sergeyev left Russia after the revolution, notations for the "Nutcracker" choreography were among the dance treasures he took with him, and on this basis he staged the first Western version "Nutcracker" for the Vic-Wells Ballet in London in 1934.

The first full-length, if abbreviated, version presented in the United States was a 1940 production by ballerina Alexandra Fedorova for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York, based on her own memories of performing "Nutcracker" at the Maryinsky. Willam Christensen's more complete production for the San Francisco Ballet followed four years later. A decade after that, George Balanchine mounted the landmark production for the New York City Ballet that's been regarded as a touchstone ever since, and from then on the nationwide "Nutcracker" mania burgeoned forth.

Among the multitude of versions that have ensued since have been the charming Washington Ballet production that opens its yearly run at Lisner Auditorium Friday evening, and the one choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov (it was his first full-length ballet) for American Ballet Theatre that premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1976 and is now shown annually in a TV transcription.

The point here, though, is that until now the Joffrey Ballet had always resisted the tide. Indeed, it was part of the company's claim to fame. It was the one major ballet company that did not do a "Nutcracker." Instead, the Joffrey has carved out a new territory for itself, fostering the work of resident choreographers Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey himself; helping to perpetuate milestones of 20th-century choreography by such masters as de Mille, Ashton, Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and Jooss, among many others; inducting modern dance choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean into the ballet orbit; and showcasing the work of rising talents like Jiri Kylian, the late Choo-San Goh and William Forsythe. When the company finally broke its own precedent, as a concomitant of the troupe's growth in recent years, and staged several full-length ballets, they were works created in this century, such as Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet" and Ashton's "La Fille Mal Garde'e."

Yet, at the very time of this writing, the Joffrey production of "The Nutcracker" is having its world premiere at the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, where the company has had a long history of fruitful association. After the two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center, the production will move on to New York's City Center for a week, and plans are already laid for a December staging next year at the Music Center in the Joffrey's second home city of Los Angeles.

Despite appearances, this really isn't a turnabout for Joffrey, who's been talking about a "Nutcracker" for his company for a long period. "It's something I've wanted to do for a very long time," he said a few weeks ago in New York. "I've been thinking about it, planning it, dreaming about it for 15 years."

One rationale any company has for giving its public a "Nutcracker" is the tinkle of cash at the box office -- many smaller troupes support themselves for an entire season on "Nutcracker" proceeds, and if there's any such thing as a sure-fire ballet this is the one. If the Joffrey production follows suit, and there's every reason to suppose that it will, the production will have more than justified its considerable cost, by ballet standards. But the reasons Joffrey cited first were more characteristic of his way of thinking:

"I think the company needs it artistically -- the dancers need to be in touch with this side of ballet tradition, and with this wonderful ballet in particular. And it also means more employment for them, which is always an important consideration for us. This season alone, 'The Nutcracker' will mean a gain of four weeks of paychecks for them."

The notion of an American styling has also been in the back of his mind from the start.

"I decided early on to place it in America, and in the Victorian period, which saw the beginnings of many of the family traditions we associate with Christmas, like the exchanging of gifts, for instance. Christmas trees were relatively new in this country then, around midcentury. German immigrants brought them over. Franklin Pierce was the first president to decorate a White House Christmas tree -- that was in 1856.

"There's also the circumstance that we put the production together mainly during a four-week residence in Iowa this past June. There we were making a 'Nutcracker' in the heartland of America. I think by sheer osmosis a lot of Americana worked its way into the atmosphere. We also found some historic props we're using out there -- a Victorian doll carriage, for example. And we recruited 44 Iowa children for the production. Most of them will come to Washington, but we'll also add 11 ballet kids from Washington.

"On top of all this, I've been collecting Victorian period memorabilia for years, and many of our designs are based on prints, engravings, woodcuts, post cards and toys, mostly American, that I ran across."

The choreography and staging, the designs and physical production have been shared by a hefty team of collaborators, but Joffrey has been responsible for the overall conception and direction.

"I wanted to stick as close as possible to the spirit and choreographic tradition of the original Ivanov production. This 'Nutcracker' won't have any dark overtones; it's joyous and bright. Gerry Arpino has done the choreography for the Snowflakes dance and the 'Waltz of the Flowers.' For the second act divertissements and much of the rest of the choreography I enlisted George Verdak, who danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production staged by my old teacher, Fedorova. I think she knew the Ivanov choreography as thoroughly as anyone.

"We've tried to follow the original story faithfully, too. But we've also introduced correspondences that tie the conception together across the several scenes. So, for instance, Drosselmeyer's nephew in the first scene becomes the Nutcracker Prince at the end of the battle with the mice, when Clara gives him a kiss for his victory. Clara's mother and father turn into the Snow Queen and King, and her brother Fritz shows up as the Snow Prince. Clara's toy dolls in the Christmas party scene become real children in the second scene, and then return as adult dancers for the divertissements."

Joffrey also had no small hand in the choreography, working in close association with company ballet master Scott Barnard, who supervised most of the staging.

The first outside collaborator Joffrey contacted, a couple of years ago, was set designer Oliver Smith, former codirector of American Ballet Theatre, who created matchless decor for such ballet classics as "Rodeo," "Fancy Free" and "Fall River Legend," not to mention his awesome list of Broadway credits, which include "West Side Story," "My Fair Lady" and "Hello, Dolly!," and such films as "The Band Wagon" and "Porgy and Bess."

Kermit Love, the creator of "Sesame Street's" Big Bird, has designed the mice, based on tin soldiers in medieval armor typical of Victorian toys, as well as Clara's hobbyhorse and a 14-foot puppet figure for Mother Ginger in the divertissements. Longtime Joffrey collaborator John David Ridge has designed the production's 170 costumes, including an array of individualized flowers -- a Pansy, a Carnation, a Dahlia, and so on, each dancer differently clad -- for the "Waltz of the Flowers," and Thomas Skelton, the dean of dance illuminators, has done the lighting. The very end of the production will feature a special surprise that is likely to leave audiences gasping and smiling.

Of special note in the casting will be the guest appearance of England's Alexander Grant as Clara's godfather Dr. Drosselmeyer, the magician and toymaker whose gift of a toy nutcracker sets the entire story into motion. Joffrey says, "Drosselmeyer is an extremely important character in our production, and he appears in every scene, including the Land of the Snow and the Candy Kingdom. I felt we needed someone very special for the part, someone who would be mischievous but also very mysterious, and Grant is just right for it."

Clara, the little girl whose Christmas Eve dream forms the largest portion of the plot, will be portrayed in every Kennedy Center performance by Mary Barton, a former Washington Ballet dancer recently inducted into the Joffrey Ballet after a stint with its junior troupe, the Joffrey II Dancers. In Washington, three casts of principals, including Dawn Caccamo and Glenn Edgerton, Tina LeBlanc and Tom Mossbrucker, and Leslie Carothers and Ashley Wheater, will alternate for the 14 performances through Dec. 2.