The clever title of this mixed bill, “Pas de deux for Toes and Fingers” ­­– brainchild of Russian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova and her violinist husband Vadim Repin – led me to expect a daring and experimental program. Or, at least, revealing of something more personal than we typically see from the couple in their respective ecosystems, where they are superstars.

I was wrong.

Svetlana Zakharova in <i>The Dying Swan</i> © Pierluigi Abbondanza
Svetlana Zakharova in The Dying Swan
© Pierluigi Abbondanza

The dance content was tepid, unadventurous fare, even by ballet gala standards. A snippet of Raymonda (the boring part), The Dying Swan, a couple of enigmatic contemporary pieces, and the delightful but insubstantial La ronde des lutins by Johann Kobborg gave dance-lovers little nourishment.

Music-lovers were in heaven, however. Warm, lush tones all around. And Hong Kong’s young and vibrant Gustav Mahler Orchestra, led by Anton Barakhovsky, responded with verve and style to Repin’s pyrotechnic feats in works from Paganini to Mendelssohn, Ravel and more.

The high point of the evening was indeed a pas de deux, but Zakharova was not in it. Repin and Barakhovsky traded some baroque quips at the top of Igor Frolov’s 1979 Divertimento for Two Violins and Orchestra, then all hell broke loose. They were bitten by the jazz bug – and though the classical music fairy tried to rescue them, they were too far down the rabbit hole. It was great fun, impressive bowing, and further enlivened by the physical contrast between the soulful Repin, who channels all his energy through the sounds of the violin, and Barakhovsky, who is a live wire.

Zakharova first sailed onstage stretched out in an overhead lift, ported by the handsome and stalwart Mikhail Lobukhin. In a glittering white tutu and tiara, her endlessly long arms and legs stretched to full capacity at a breathtaking height from the stage, she was a magnificent sight – rather like one of those gleaming white cruise ships sailing into port at Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour just a few hundred metres away. Once Lobukhin lowered her onto terra firma, she showed off the extravagant lines in arabesque, etc. that have made her an icon of stretchy ballet.

As the Dying Swan, Zakharova was perfectly tragic. But since Russian ballet is a rarity in these climes, shouldn’t its leading exponents give us a glimpse of the new material the Russian companies are tackling, instead of the warhorses that have circumnavigated the globe for decades?

The contemporary pieces, on the other hand, provided no meaningful insight into where ballet is headed.

Svetlana Zakharova in <i>Revelation</i> © Pierluigi Abbondanza
Svetlana Zakharova in Revelation
© Pierluigi Abbondanza

The one piece in which genuine emotion seemed to pierce Zakharova’s steely exterior was the contemporary solo, titled Revelation, by Japanese choreographer Motoko Hirayama. Set to a recorded film score by John Williams, the choreography was beset with myriad contemporary clichés. In a narrow cone of light, the barefoot, pony-tailed ballerina, in white nightgown, twitched, rolled around on the floor, crawled behind and over a chair, to scary piano music embellished with whooshing sounds. As the whooshing got louder – perhaps signaling the imminent approach of an alien spaceship – Zakharova seemed more panicked. The music turned symphonic and lyrical – perhaps the aliens turned out to be friendly – but Zakharova continued to dance as if unnerved. By the close, she had regained some inner strength, signaled at one point by her kicking her leg up to her nose and gripping it there with her hands. (By that point in the evening we’d already had ample evidence of her six o’clock extensions – front, side and back – but I guess some modern choreographers cannot resist.)

The emotional arc, nevertheless, was finely etched, a tribute to Zakharova’s dramatic skills – it’s confirmation of greatness when a ballerina can rise above humdrum choreography.

Vladimir Varnava gave us the other contemporary piece, in which he danced with Zakharova. While I didn’t realize the world needed another ballet to Arvo Pärt’s shimmering ‘Fratres,’ it made another great outing for Repin and the orchestra. Titled Plus. Minus. Zero., it featured Varnava as some sort of tortured artist and Zakharova as his not-always-compliant muse. The pair frequently touched each other’s foreheads as if checking for signs of fever, and made fervent anti-ballet declarations: cocked hips, sickled feet, changements with fists instead of feet. Varnava behaved as if possessed, while she shot a bunch of stern, cryptic looks at the audience. No light was shed on the score.

<i>La Ronde des lutins</i> © Pierluigi Abbondanza
La Ronde des lutins
© Pierluigi Abbondanza

The sun burst through with La ronde des lutins, an apt program closer. In this lighthearted showpiece, the ballerina toys with a pair of suitors – all three of them clad in matching trousers and suspenders. Ultimately, she turns them down to run off with the violinist (it’s her husband!) Lobukhin and Vyacheslav Lopatin showed off their distinctively Russian prowess, Lopatin wowing us with the height of his air turns and beaten jumps, Lobukhin with his crystal-clear articulation and masterful phrasing. The men exchanged a little banter with Repin before Zakharova made her entrance (“Svetlana has left?” teased Repin, moments before giving Lobukhin a playful kick on the backside.)

At the curtain call, Varnava joined the cast for more impressive displays of Russian men’s technique. Zakharova tossed off a bunch of fouettés; on demi-pointe and in trousers, this was an unorthodox treat. The audience lapped it up.