Pennsylvania Ballet has undergone great change in recent months - a new artistic director, new ballet masters, new dancers, and more. One had to wonder: Would the beloved winter classic George Balanchine's The Nutcracker look different too when it opened Saturday at the Academy of Music?

The once-a-year balletgoer may not notice the changes, because the Balanchine choreography must be kept as the great choreographer set it 60 years ago, only allowing for alterations he later made or would have approved. Similarly, Pennsylvania Ballet's costumes and sets were updated in 2007 and are likely to be in use for a good long while.

But the dancers can change, and have. Many of the longtime opening-night roles have shifted as dancers have retired, a few new ones have been hired, and younger ones are given a chance. Indeed, a flip through the program shows new names in the top roles in nearly every performance.

The dancing was of high quality Saturday night, and the ballet as charming and magical as ever. Nutcracker is a story ballet, even when the tale gets looser in the second-act divertissements, and on Saturday the acting could have been turned up a notch, as some dancers forgot facial expressions. The company sometimes has had a pirouette problem, with many dancers falling out of turns, but that rarely happened here.

Amy Aldridge, who so often danced Dewdrop, was elevated to the role of opening-night Sugar Plum Fairy. She is a delight to watch, light and expressive. Her partnering with Cavalier Lorin Mathis was mostly smooth, with just the occasional labored lift. Mathis' solo was clean, though his posture was less regal than the role demands.

Alexandra Hughes danced Dewdrop. She is a dancer on the rise and was a strong, beautiful if somewhat serious lead for the corps of flowers.

No one jumps like Jermel Johnson, who put so much power into the split jumps and pirouettes of his Coffee variation that he took a quick tumble. But audiences would rather see the mistakes of too much gusto than the caution of holding back.

The children were adorable, led by Ella Van Oosterom as Marie, Aidan Duffy as her Prince, and Tino Karakousis as her high-spirited brother, Fritz.

The party scene was as inviting as ever, but the real magic began after the guests departed. Even after many viewings and knowing the inner workings of the tricks, what follows never fails to elicit a sense of wonder in me: the growing tree, Marie's fear and then leadership, the battle between the mice and the soldiers, and the Nutcracker coming to life. It's hard to beat the low-tech stunner of a scene when it begins to snow, the snowflakes dance in puffs of blue-white, and the red-jacketed Philadelphia Boys Choir sings next to the stage.

This Nutcracker is a gorgeous two hours, danced well and with holiday spirit. This year's version looks much as it ever did, and is likely to leave audiences filled with comfort and joy.


 George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Presented by Pennsylvania Ballet through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.

Tickets: $30-$125.

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