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WHEN "The Nutcracker" is performed well, as it was Thursday night by the New Jersey Ballet at Shea's Buffalo Theater, it leaves you dreaming of waltzing flowers and humming the phrases of Tchaikovsky's memorable score.

With Rosemary Sabovick as the sparkling Sugar Plum Fairy and a special opening-night performance by New York City Ballet dancer Leonid Kozlov as the Cavalier, the New Jersey Ballet captured the attention of an attentive audience with strong soloists and visual choreography. Kozlov, a former member of the Bolshoi Ballet, was one of many outstanding dancers to perform in the holiday classic, which annually serves to usher in the holiday season.

Traditional in its origin, yet innovative in its scenery and special effects, the New Jersey Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker" has all the necessary ingredients to inspire pleasant dreams in children and adults alike. Leanne Rutherford is a light and lilting Dew Drop, Eli Lazar a rousing Russian Trepak, Lori Christman a gracious, twirling Snow Queen, and Julie Salese a picture-perfect Clara.

This young company, directed by Carolyn Clark and choreographed by Joseph Carow and George Tomal, has a strong technical presence that is most apparent in its soloists and least uniformly apparent in its corps de ballet. While the company has yet to achieve a consistent physical "look," the dancing is, on the whole, personable and proficient.

"The Nutcracker," a ballet based upon the story by E. T. A. Hoffman, describes the magical journey of Clara and her nutcracker-come-to-life. While young children may not understand the entire story, they undoubtedly will appreciate the resplendent costumes and scenery in the New Jersey Ballet's production. Most of all, they will find pleasure in the dancing, which begins in Act One and doesn't stop until the curtain closes.

It's a pleasure to see a Clara (Julie Salese), who dances on pointe and who radiates personality, sparkle and presence without giving up one ounce of quality. It's also a pleasure to watch dancing mice who inspire fear and trepidation through the integrity of their movements. Finally, it's a pleasure to watch the magic between Salese and her Nutcracker, Christopher Newnan, as they capture the innocent longings of youth.

In Act One, scenery and lighting are effective at creating shifts of mood. As children clamor outside the living room door and a screen rises to reveal a Christmas tree, a crackling fire and gaily wrapped presents, the mood is full of anticipation.

Drosselmeyer, played by Christopher Tabor in a flash of black cape, is both benevolent and mysterious as he mirrors scenes of what is to come. As the party draws to a close, the tree lights blink and the scene changes into a dramatic sea of strobe-lit red and black -- the war of the mice and toy soldiers is about to begin. The lighting creates a sense of drama; the duel appears larger than life.

In Act Two all the traditional divertissements are present, with many special performances by individual dancers. Imagine a candyland of enormous lollipops and a centerpiece of hard candies, a backdrop in pastel pink and green, Clara in white. And then imagine a Spanish-flavored dance called "Chocolate," followed by the entrance of "Coffee" in the guise of an Arabian. Next is "Tea," a stylish Chinese dance.

Most memorable was Eli Lazar's Russian "Trepak," a dance filled with one miraculous feat after another. Lazar is not only a strong, able dancer who attacks jumps and grande jete turns with precision; he is an energetic force whose enthusiasm is contagious.

Children will love the Mother Ginger clowns, all from Western New York, with their cartwheels and acrobatics, but I prefer the more formal dancing in the original version of "The Nutcracker."

Both Leanne Rutherford as the Dew Drop and Rosemary Sabovick as the Sugar Plum Fairy deserve special mention. Rutherford, a sophisticated, light-footed dancer, is the center of a lovely Waltz of the Flowers. Sabovick is positively regal -- gracious and graceful, with a technical quality that is always natural.

The Pas De Deux is one of the more difficult I've seen. The choreography is demanding. But Sabovick and Kozlov are up to the task. Their variations pick up every nuance of the music, their dancing is effortless and commanding -- all in all, a strong finish to a strong "Nutcracker."

Performances continue through Sunday.

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