Dance: Tutu much arguing

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Scottish Ballet's La Fille mal gardee opened under great scrutiny and unusual pressure. It was the company's first performance of the ballet, the first under entirely new management and the first since a near-lethal funding crisis.

The Scottish Arts Council planned to resolve its financial difficulties and those of Scottish Opera, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The ballet orchestra was to be disbanded, and the company was to share the orchestral resources of the other three. Scottish Ballet complained that the running expenses of such a system would outweigh the saving. The company left (or, depending on who you believe, was kicked out of) the talks when the SAC refused to provide a guarantee that they would not be left in worse financial straits than before. Shortly afterwards the decision to grant Scottish Ballet lottery money for a new Christmas ballet was reversed: Arts Council core funding would be withheld. After a public outcry, funding was restored, on the condition that the company's management should resign. The company escaped closure when the board, and artistic director Galina Samsova, agreed to fall on their swords.

The SAC and the new board - an artistic director has yet to be appointed - have promised a shift away from Samsova's emphasis on classical dancing. La Fille mal gardee, Ashton's lovely and decidely classical ballet, is an incongruous beginning, but the new management had little choice in the matter. The absence of the lottery grant left the company without a Christmas show and Birmingham Royal Ballet had offered to lend them its production of Fille. The catch is that the offer was a gesture of support made to the previous management. Fille's very successful first night was very much in the tradition of Samsova's direction.

Happily, these uncertainties were not transferred to the stage. The company's dancing was attentive and lively, offstage wrangles failing to shadow the comic plots of Ashton's pastoral world. It is a wonderfully generous ballet. The widow Simone's determination to marry her daughter to the rich but vacuous Alain is misguided, but we never doubt that her ambition is rooted in affection. When Lise chooses to marry Colas instead, it matters to her that her mother should agree and be reconciled to her. All this is told in a perfect blend of classical dancing with English folk steps and beautifully constructed mime scenes. The audience adored it.

The first night Lise and Colas were Yurie Shinohara and Campbell McKenzie. They have established a partnership at Scottish Ballet, most recently and most touchingly in the company's excellent Romeo and Juliet. Shinohara is a light, musical dancer with a clear, gentle line. The mime scenes don't come naturally to her, but she approaches them with delicate phrasing. McKenzie's Colas is robustly danced. He presents steps and character with a pleasing directness, and is a secure and attentive partner. The final pas de deux was danced with particular warmth and care.

In publicity terms, at least, the hero and heroine had been rather overshadowed by the starry presence of Wayne Sleep as Alain. His presence is certainly accomplished, he shapes mime and dance into strong, coherent phrases, and he is remarkably good at communicating with his audience. The result is somehow less than satisfactory. He seems too ready to go for easy laughs, and the details of his interpretation are fudged in the process. Sleep does, however, understand that Ashton's mime roles need to be danced. The steps may be given comic emphasis, but they are still real steps. It is no accident that the Widow's clog dance is the ballet's most famous number, but Ken Burke fails to give the Widow Simone's steps their true value, and the character is never properly established.

The corps de ballet dance with enjoyment, and the whole company give a sense of involvement in the story. Supporting roles were cheerfully done; I admired Ivan Dinev, who had fun as the cockerel. Whatever happens to Scottish Ballet, its dancers have risen to the present challenge. Their audience cheered them on, and went home happy.

Aberdeen His Majesty's Theatre (01224 641122), Tues-Sat; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), 16-27 Dec; Glasgow Theatre Royal (0141 332 9000), 29 Dec-10 Jan. Jenny Gilbert returns next week.

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