For two decades Scottish Ballet was no more than a faint blip on the dance world's radar, threatening more than once to disappear. So when in 2002 a novice director was drafted in to turn its fortunes around, the odds on his success were pretty slim. One of the problems had been an inability to decide whether the company should be classical or contemporary, and in choosing Ashley Page the board still seemed to hedge its bets. Yet three years on, Scotland's only full-time classical dance company is brimming with health and vigour, though it's a moot point whether you can call this a turnaround. Page himself has referred to his managerial strategy as more of a cull.
And yet... a drastic situation calls for drastic measures, and the result is a 44-strong company of young international talent that looks increasingly capable of dancing anything it meets: Forsythe, Javier de Frutos, Hans van Manen and even Balanchine, whose ferociously demanding Jewels suite it assayed with style last summer - Scottish Ballet's first showing at the Edinburgh Festival for 20 years.
But nothing could be more challenging, or exposing, than a three-act ballet that attempts to give a fresh look to music known and loved. Two years ago Page tackled Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, but had to ferry in guest stars to supply technical class. Now, with Prokofiev's Cinderella, everyone and everything is the company's own, including choreography by Page that manages to keep one eye on the work's illustrious past while thrusting a hip at the future. Yes, there are pointe shoes and tutus, classical solos for each of the four seasons and even a kitchen number for Cinders with a scarf, but there is also a sense of line deliberately skewed, knees that might turn in as well as out, and feet quite happy left unshod.
This is apt in a story that hinges on footwear. Page's staging not only opens with a front cloth showing an 18th-century shoe, but adds a prologue in which we see Cinderella's dying mother bequeath her a pair of jewelled slippers. When later the anonymous hag appears at the hearth begging alms, Cinderella notices that the old woman's feet are bare, and big-heartedly donates her only heirloom. In a trice she earns full marks in fairy tale's statutory kindness test and proves herself worthy of a better life. What's more, in exchange for the precious slippers she mysteriously receives a pair of pointe shoes, a signifier not only of coming-of-age (only big girls are allowed on point), but of the classical poise she will acquire at the ball. Later you see that Page has carefully charted the character's growing sophistication in a gradual shift of choreographic style, though you're not aware of this as it happens.
As with the Nutcracker, Page works hand-in-glove with designer Antony McDonald, and once again McDonald's taste for the outsize and incongruous comes up trumps. The family parlour bears few traces of the usual manorial squalor. Already the father's ghastly new wife (Ab Fab vamp Eve Mutso) has imposed her own taste: fuchsia-painted furniture straight from the Barbie catalogue, an American fridge in mauve, and an oil portrait of herself that might be by Andy Warhol. Only Cinderella's scullery escapes the re-furb, and here McDonald really goes to town with a grimy butler sink surmounted by a 14-foot stack of dirty crockery that constantly threatens to topple.
Much as I enjoyed the extremity of McDonald's interior décor, I baulked at the extreme behaviour it evoked. OK, so it would be galling for the stepsisters that Cinderella, not they, caught their mother's bridal bouquet, but would their revenge really take the form of emptying her own mother's ashes over her head, stripping her to her undies and beating her up? In fairness, Prokofiev's score is strongly prescriptive, and tells a director precisely when to supply comedy action, there isn't a lot of leeway. And since Page has (probably wisely) decided against men in drag for the sisters, he had to find some other way of making them outrageous. But for all the vicious energy Patricia Hines and Diana Loosmore put into their roles, both are too good-looking to convince as monsters. The exception is when they frenziedly mutilate their feet when the Prince's foot-measurer comes calling in Act III. Children with an appetite for gore will love the lashings of stage ketchup and alarmingly real-looking stumps they manage to hack off.
But is there enough choreographic meat on the bones of Page's Cinderella to satisfy those brought up on Frederick Ashton's more decorous version? Page certainly supplies lashings of steps, but you feel the want of numbers on the Act II ballroom floor. The fact that Scottish Ballet is only half the size of the Royal Ballet is hardly his fault, yet he's misguided to think that breaking up an ensemble into canon entries makes it look fuller. To my eye it has the opposite effect, and unisons would be neater, too.
There are three strong reasons to see this Cinderella. First, the designs (I won't spoil the surprise, but the pumpkin idea takes off spectacularly); secondly, Claire Robertson's titular heroine - appealingly vulnerable, technically assured and heroically tireless in a marathon of a role; and lastly Prokofiev's darkly glittering score, given due depth and grandeur by conductor Nicholas Kok and players who are no less than magnificent.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141 332 9000) to 31 Dec; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000) 4-14 Jan; Her Majesty's, Aberdeen (01224 641122) 17-21 Jan; Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent (0870 060 6649) 8-11 March; Sadler's Wells, London (0870 737 7737) 14-18 MarchReuse content