Following a ballet company is a bit like following a sports team. The dancers, who become professionals as teenagers, all have the ability, but only a few will take their raw talent and shape it into something exceptional. It's exciting to see who will emerge on top.

The Pennsylvania Ballet's Nutcracker opened Saturday night at the Academy of Music with young dancers filling nearly all of the major roles. Only two principal dancers performed: Arantxa Ochoa as the Sugarplum Fairy, and Alexander Iziliaev as Herr Drosselmeier. Three performances by rising stars - all soloists - highlighted the evening.

Ian Hussey, who danced the role of the Little Prince with the Pennsylvania Ballet as a child, made his debut as Sugarplum's Cavalier. His performance was regal, relaxed, and confident, and he attacked his pirouettes in second position. Ochoa, who in the mid-1990s was Sugarplum to Hussey's Little Prince, did not always look comfortable in his arms, but appeared to settle down as the pas de deux progressed.

Barette Vance was delightful as Dewdrop, and seemed almost airborne dancing the quick, lively choreography. She whipped off a series of fouettés, ending in a beautiful triple turn.

Jermel Johnson has impressive flexibility, high jumps, and confident turns aplenty. (the Pennsylvania Ballet would do well to hire six more Jermel Johnsons.) He danced two roles on opening night. His Soldier Doll in the party scene was performed with the mechanical exactitude the role requires - but doesn't always get. He also danced the Tea trio, and impressed with buoyant split jumps that went past 180 degrees.

Also notable were corps de ballet dancer Andrew Daly, who leaped through the Candy Cane hoops with ease, and soloist Gabriella Yudenich, whose slinky Coffee solo was even more impressive in the finale, when she held her balances a fraction of a second longer than seemed possible.

While many of the adults moved into new roles, the three principal children were all seasoned alumni, having danced their parts last year. Maria Santangelo was excellent as Marie. Lucas Tischler, as her suitably bratty younger brother, was hilarious, if less precocious than last year. Peter Weil bordered on being too tall to be the Little Prince, but danced the part admirably.

New casts are scattered throughout the run, which goes through Dec. 31. But if, like me, you've seen George Balanchine's The Nutcracker so many times you have much of the choreography memorized, there is still plenty to discover in the multilayered ballet. This year I focused on the grandparents opening their gifts, Drosselmeier encouraging the mice to fight the soldiers, and the lovely snowy scene, not even marred by a Snowflake who literally fell on stage.

The Pennsylvania Ballet has been sprucing up its Nutcracker since 2007, when it commissioned new sets and costumes. Balanchine's choreography sparkles at the Academy of Music. But like living-room walls that suddenly look dingy against new drapes, the one holdout is the Astroturf-green Christmas tree. A new tree would finish the look.

Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com