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What would the holiday be without `The Nutcracker' ballet?

THE youngster I took to ``The Nutcracker'' this year is almost six feet tall and 15 years old. He has been celebrating Christmas with this ballet for most of his life, and he couldn't imagine the holidays without it. As we entered the New York State Theater, he inhaled expectantly and said, ``All those pretty girls!'' The New York City Ballet's pretty girls are as good a reason to see ``The Nutcracker'' as any.

The first act of George Balanchine's production of the 19th-century classic has been praised for its nostalgic depiction of a cozy old-fashioned Christmas, but to me the party scene rings less true than the spectacle of dances that follow it.

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Neither the adult dancers nor the children from the School of American Ballet work with deeply thought-out characterizations, and their miming of grown-ups greeting each other and children being rowdy is unconvincing.

The scene looks right, like a Currier and Ives card, but the details are wrong. The young women are charming but not matronly; the servants are too familiar; the children are each exciting in exactly the same way.

It is a ballet, of course, and Balanchine's concept of the party was to distribute formal dancing and miming patterns among the more naturalistic action.

But despite some recent updating - at one point the little girls start hitting the boys instead of always passively playing dolly and being teased by bratty little brothers - I find the simplest images are the most touching: The way Herr Drosselmeier (Shaun O'Brien) avoids the children when he first enters, pretending to be as sinister as he looks, though really he's their benevolent uncle. The mother hurrying through the chilly house to find little Marie (Heather Noelle Donohue), who's crept down to retrieve the nutcracker doll and fallen asleep with it under the tree.

Marie's dream is like a scene from ``Alice in Wonderland.''

Though stage magic makes the tree and the windows grow enormous, and a war breaks out between people-sized mice and toy soldiers sprouted to child size, in my mind Marie and I are shrinking. Balanchine was a wizard at changes of scale, and this ballet has the most stupendous ones of his entire career.

After Marie and the Nutcracker defeat the Mouse King, they travel through the forest on their way to the Land of Sweets.

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Here, amid plush, twinkling evergreens and falling snow, the Snowflakes dance like tiny magic creatures you'd see only if you knew where to look for them under the branches.

The second act is all business - what the grown-ups in the audience have been waiting for and what makes the smallest spectators restless.

Among the most impressive of the divertissements were Jean-Pierre Frohlich's high-bouncing Candy Cane, Nichol Hlinka leading the Marzipan Shepherdesses with beautiful pointe work, and the gravely sexy Stephanie Saland as Hot Chocolate.

Heather Watts was the opening-night Sugarplum Fairy, dancing with her usual oblique glamour. Miss Watts improvised intelligently to cover the gap when the Nutcracker Prince (Jonathan Joseph Pessolano) fell and couldn't finish what started out as a fluent and musical mime solo.

The Sugarplum's Cavalier doesn't get much to do in this ballet, but Ib Andersen in his variation worked up to some lightning-fast turns with complicated leg gestures.

Presiding over the whole evening, for me, was the Dewdrop, Kyra Nichols, flashing through tremendous technical exertions and surprises with a supercharged but unflustered energy that galvanized her corps of ruffly pink accomplices.

A mixed bag, ``The Nutcracker,'' - gaudy, phony, simpery, and also homely as the sock on the mantelpiece, grand as the Imperial Court in our dreams.

But when it was over, my guest and I agreed, we wouldn't have missed it for anything, and the Snowflakes were the best.

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