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IT was, George Balanchine once told me, his favorite ballet - and during the holidays, it's danced all over the world.

Just why does "The Nutcracker," that sugarplum of a ballet, still seem as fresh as a new snowfall?

For children, there is the unusual delight of seeing kids, of much their own age, on stage. Each year, 100 students from the School of American Ballet take the stage - 50 at a time - in alternating casts for the New York City Ballet version Balanchine choreographed 51 years ago.

Seeing those young dancers - quite a few of whom, over the years, took major roles as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier (danced in many performances this year by Charles Askegard, a k a Mr. Candace Bushnell) - gives a special savor to the ballet's elaborate Christmas party and later that fierce battle between the gallant Toy Soldiers and those maddening Mice.

Then there is the joy of watching that Christmas tree grow as high as the sky, seeing the dancers peek out from under Mother Ginger's enormous skirt, and the dances in the Kingdom of the Sweets.

Better yet, the story is easy enough for everyone to appreciate, if not fully understand. At least no one has to ask, "What are those swans doing, Mommy?" while the Tchaikovsky music pirouettes through adult memories.

Today, "The Nutcracker" seems the most Christmassy of Christmas shows, its popularity rivaling that of Tchaikovsky's other classics, "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty."'

It was not always so. After its first performance in 1892, when the Russian czar sniffingly pronounced it mediocre, it was all uphill sledding for "The Nutcracker," until it suddenly found universal favor around the middle of the 20th century.

This year, the New York City Ballet will perform it 45 times; for specific times, casting details and tickets ($20 to $99), visit

But while Balanchine's lavish production is the biggest and oldest (and most expensive) in New York, there are literally dozens of variations playing this month and next in and around the city.

Here's a brief list of some of the better known:

DANCES PATRELLE: This is the 10th anniversary of the company's "Yorkville Nutcracker," set in 1895 New York, which includes such historical characters as the then police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and travels from Gracie Mansion to the N.Y. Botanical Garden. The cast is led by Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle (both principals of New York City Ballet) and Donald Williams from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Dec. 9, 10 and 11. $35 and $45. The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, 68th Street between Park and Lexington avenues; (212) 772-4448.

JOFFREY BALLET SCHOOL: Choreographed by John Magnus, it has an abridged, child-friendly first act featuring longtime Joffrey principal Gary Chryst as the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer. Dec. 17 (matinee and evening shows). $20 for children, $25 for adults. Skirball Performing Arts Center, La Guardia Place. (212) 279-4200.

NEW YORK THEATRE BALLET: The 20th anniversary production of Keith Michael's hourlong miniature version, best for children 3 and older, is based on lithographs from the English Toy Theatre of the early 19th century. Dec. 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 17, 18 (two or three performances daily). $25 for kids, $30 for adults. Florence Gould Hall, 55 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues. (212) 307-4100.

THE NEW JERSEY BALLET: This 35th anniversary performance is being given all-new first-act scenery by Michael Anania, the Paper Mill's excellent resident designer. The choreography for the snow scene and the entire second act is by George Tomal, the troupe's resident choreographer, and there is a cast of more than 90 performers. Dec. 16-26.$24 to $54. (973) 597-9600.

VALENTINA KOZLOVA'S DANCE CONSERVATORY: Kozlova, a former principal dancer with both New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet, choreographed the ballet's second act. Margo Sappington did the first, and gives us an "Auntie" Drosselmeyer said to be modeled on the late Hermione Gingold. Dec. 2 and 3. $25 ($15 student rush tickets available at 7:30 p.m.) Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street. (212) 864-5400.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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