CAMBRIDGE -- For 18 years, Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre has offered local audiences a polished, small-scale version of ''The Nutcracker" that favors substantive dancing and a sweet, touching directness. Mateo's 20-year-old troupe, the second-largest ballet company in Boston, makes no attempt to compete with Boston Ballet's opulence and visual spectacle. The charm of this spare but beautifully costumed production is in the intimacy and details most patrons would miss in a grander, more spacious setting. The remodeled church space of the Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge fits this production just right.
Mateo takes liberties with the usually slow-moving traditional scenario of the opening act; he gets things moving immediately and sets the tone for vivid, well-paced storytelling. The only hitch is the prologue music, which plays to a closed curtain and could easily do without the repeat. But instead of opening the action on a meandering street scene, the ballet opens on young Clara's dream world, where dancing fairies create a Christmas tree out of streamers falling from the ceiling and deliver a mysterious gift. Soon after, we meet the magical Dr. Drosselmeyer, whom the ever-youthful Mateo portrays with debonair benevolence tinged with the slightest air of melancholy, rounding up his renegade dolls before heading off to the Silberhaus Christmas party.
The rest of the first act flies by, from the charming Columbine and Harlequin duet, given a delightful performance by Desiree Parrott and Cosmin Marculetiu on opening night, to the group dances by both adults and children. The baby mice were predictably adorable, the soldiers spit and polish, and the older group of student Angels in Act II especially impressive in challenging pointe work. Clara, radiantly portrayed with poise and expressivity by young Jaclyn Sanford, was given technically demanding pointe work from the opening tableau.
The only slow point of the night follows Clara's quick dispatch of the Mouse King, which frees her toy Nutcracker from a magic spell. Sanford and Henoch Spinola, a capable but rather wimpy Nutcracker Prince, have little to do while waiting for the snow to start. But once it does, Mateo's swirling patterns of dancers are visually captivating. The addition of men to the corps allows for partnered lifts to create a breathtaking multilayered effect.
Act II's divertissements were solid, especially Charissa Leatherman and Sean Gunter in a vivaciously flamboyant ''Trepak" and Susan Bourque and David Dubois in a restrained yet sensuous ''Coffee." Though the ''Waltz of the Flowers" was overly busy, never really settling into the swing of Tchaikovsky's sumptuous music, Sybil Watkins floated through the dance with ethereal, long-lined elegance as the Dew Drop Fairy. The most spectacular dancing of the evening came with the return of Parrott and Marculetiu as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Marculetiu is missing some height and extension at this stage of his career, but his partnering was impeccable. Parrott was superb, with crystalline articulation and liquid, expressive arms. Her stage-circling round of pirouettes was spot on.