Barette Vance was an absolutely spectacular Dewdrop in the 3 p.m. edition of

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker,

one of the three Saturday performances with which the Pennsylvania Ballet began its annual run at the Academy of Music. Dewdrop is effectively the second female lead, after the Sugarplum Fairy (the latter beautifully danced by Abigail Mentzer). It's in the famous "Waltz of the Flowers" that Dewdrop gets to strut her stuff, and Vance was a technical wonder with an electric presence.

Any decent version of Nutcracker creates theatrical magic, and this production does not disappoint. Its exquisite costumes and sets - revamped in 2007 - remain dazzling. The special effects (growing Christmas tree, falling snow) are superbly executed, and the "cuteness" factor is off the charts - most notably in Act 2, which opens with 12 adorable little girls dressed as angels. But the really impressive thing is how well these mini-angels - and the many other young performers - dance. Kudos to the children and to Christine Cox and Jon Martin, who coached them.

The adults distinguished themselves as well. Just a few years ago, Jermel Johnson was an eager young apprentice who wowed audiences with the height, and apparent effortlessness, of his jumps. As Sugarplum's Cavalier, Johnson demonstrates how much he has matured as an artist. He still has that spectacular elevation, but he also has developed a regal bearing and the ability to focus the audience's attention on his partner. Gabriella Yudenich added unexpected sensuality to the role of Frau Stahlbaum; William DeGregory gave a remarkably nuanced performance as Herr Drosselmeier, and the company's corps looks better all the time.

Ultimately, Nutcracker's success depends on the tone established at the beginning, by the ballet's three young stars. In the central role of Marie, Maria Santangelo was charming, with extraordinary footwork. Curly-haired scene-stealer Juan Rafael Castellanos (all of 8 years old) perfectly embodied Marie's annoying younger brother. And as the Little Prince, Thomas Harrison already possesses grown-up elegance and dignity.

Mind you, this was the so-called "B" cast, which dances at matinee rather than evening performances, and includes no principals, only soloists, corps members, and recruits from local dance schools. But they were wonderful, as was the Pennsylvania Ballet's Orchestra, under the assured direction of Beatrice Jona Affron.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Continuing at 7 p.m. Friday and then at various times through Dec. 31, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $24-$129. 215-893-1999 or