The Boston Ballet's production of ''The Nutcracker" may have returned to the big stage after a one-year stint at the intimate Colonial Theatre (it was evicted from its home at the Wang Center in favor of touring productions), but its choreography, by artistic director Mikko Nissinen, remains spare and crisp.
At its best, Nissinen's rendition of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, set to the full Tchaikovsky score, has the elegance of a snowflake: it's intricate and incapable of duplication. When it falters, it's less the fault of the choreography than of the mammothly opulent sets --splendid as they are, they can overpower the dancing -- or of a particular dancer's execution of a carefully sculpted phrase.
Thankfully, the latter doesn't happen very often. From the opening scene, in the Silberhaus's tree- and clock-dominated living room, to the grand finale, when the stage is crowded with the full citizenry of the Palace of Sweets, this ''Nutcracker" -- the Boston Ballet's 38th -- is all about line and placement and proportion. It's classical to the core.
Clara (Misa Kuranaga), on pointe, starts out a bit hesitant, but becomes buoyant and elastic by Act 2, particularly when she partners with the magical Drosselmeier (Viktor Plotnikov). For his part, Plotnikov, who transforms Clara's toy nutcracker into a handsome cavalier (the lush Roman Rykine) with a fiery snap, may gesture more than he steps, but he does so with such strong intention that you hear music in his movement.
Kathleen Breen Combes as Columbine is choppy and rubbery at once, while John Lam as Harlequin springs from the floor as if it's a trampoline. Romi Beppu as the Snow Queen brings all kinds of weather to the room: Her legs are sharp as icicles, but her remarkable musicality -- she doesn't mirror the beat but anticipates it -- melts your heart. Nelson Madrigal as her King plays the opposite: he's lanky and warm.
The numbers in the Palace of Sweets are more abstract than ethnic: It's as if Nissinen has distilled their character to their essence. In the Arabian piece, Karine Seneca and Yury Yanowsky -- clear standouts -- are at once sensual and playful. Heather Myers in the Spanish dance stretches the musical timing to the limit, and Joel Prouty in the Russian piece jumps into flying splits as if sprung from a bow. Dew Drop (Lia Cirio) is strong yet lush, with balances that seem to hover in the air for minutes.
Indeed, the only character that disappoints is the one intended as the star of the show: Larissa Ponomarenko as the Sugar Plum Fairy seems gangly and stiff, too often leading with her chin rather than her soul.
Still, in the end, this ''Nutcracker" is mesmerizing and musical. Sure there's pomp and circumstance -- a flying hot-air balloon that's foreshadowed on the opening scrim, a sleigh pulled by mincing reindeer, a Battle of the Toy Soldiers and Mice that takes place in a huge distorted version of the Silberhaus living room. But it's all in service to a dream on a cold winter night.