A finale scene from the Washington Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” (Theo Kossenas/media4artists/Courtesy of the Washington Ballet)

A “Nutcracker” is only as good as its kids are cute.

This most popular of ballets, loved far and wide, and for many, the only ballet they may ever see, rests not on the strength of its ballerina but on the cleverness and adorability of its least-experienced and littlest dancers. Invariably, whether we are talking about big or small “Nutcrackers,” it is up to the youngest cast members to tell the ballet’s story of resilience through creative play. It is primarily the children onstage who generate the festive atmosphere.

I was thinking about this as I watched the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker” on Friday, the opening of the company’s annual run at the Warner Theatre. Septime Webre, who created this version of the holiday ballet in 2004 while serving as the Washington Ballet’s artistic director, is a masterful choreographer of children. His production bubbles over with dozens of young students, who contribute most of the show’s considerable humor and vibrancy. Julie Kent, who recently took over from Webre as artistic director, has retained Webre’s production, set in the late 19th century in a Georgetown mansion, with characters drawn from U.S. history. Performances continue through Dec. 24.

Of course, the professional company members are spotlighted here as well, though this production at times feels too hectic for them to shine. On opening night, Maki Onuki’s Sugar Plum and Rolando Sarabia’s Cavalier proved the exception. They transformed the second act with their clarity and care; from the first moments of their duet it felt as if we had been whooshed into a different land, with a whole new culture and mannerisms. This was no longer fast-paced Webreville, but a realm of high civility, where the slowing down and thoughtful consideration between the two dancers was also a generous gift of pleasure for the audience.

Venus Villa as the Snow Queen and Jonathan Jordan’s Snow King produced a similarly elevating effect. Villa’s fluid legato and her palpable warmth of expression were especially lovely.

The snow scene from the Washington Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” (Theo Kossenas/media4artists/Courtesy of the Washington Ballet)

However, the best choreography is reserved for the children, especially in the battle scene. This is Webre’s triumph, a riveting collision of dolls, mice, soldiers, rats and rabbits (okay, “Valley Forge Bunnies”) that keeps moving in a variety of interesting ways but never slips into mayhem. And it’s largely driven by the youngsters. The soldiers are the showstoppers. In all the years I’ve seen this production, ever since its premiere, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by the shifting, musical formations these high-stepping little ones create as they peel off into rows, wheel around in step, split and regroup with the precision of close-order drills. They do Tchaikovsky proud. (A note to ticket-buyers: this production uses a recorded version of the score.)

Children punctuate this “Nutcracker” from beginning to end, as snow angels, clowns and various bugs and meadow creatures. They are truly the heart of the ballet, as well they should be, and they are the chief source of interest. Kudos to them, their teachers, parents and especially to the children’s ballet masters, who might be best-served by some of that champagne being passed around onstage in the first act’s Christmas Eve party. Santa, be good to them.

The Washington Ballet performs “The Nutcracker” through Dec. 24. Visit www.washingtonballet.org.