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In virus-hit eastern France, masked dancers get back to work

With an easing of France's strict coronavirus lockdown, the ballet performers of the Opera National du Rhin have resumed practice while observing strict infection-busting measures
With an easing of France's strict coronavirus lockdown, the ballet performers of the Opera National du Rhin have resumed practice while observing strict infection-busting measures SEBASTIEN BOZON AFP
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Mulhouse (France) (AFP)

In Mulhouse in eastern France, particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, professional dancers are getting back to work, practising pirouettes in their long-abandoned studio -- but no pas-de-deux.

With an easing of France's strict coronavirus lockdown last week after two months of home confinement, the ballet performers of the Opera National du Rhin must observe strict infection-busting measures, which include no contact or dancing in pairs.

They have their temperatures taken upon arrival, leave their shoes outside and must enter in full ballet attire -- plus face mask -- as the dressing rooms are off limits.

Once inside, black tape on the ground delineates a spot for each dancer, allowing them to keep a safe distance of 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) as they gracefully go through their paces to piano accompaniment.

Every time the dancers touch something -- their mask, the barre or their water bottle -- they are required to disinfect their hands.

Dancer Pierre Doncq, 33, says he has stopped drinking water during practice.

"I find it stressful to have to clean my hands each time, to remove my mask and all that. I prefer to concentrate on what the instructor says," he told AFP.

Between two sessions, Doncq had to replace his mask which had become humid from all the heavy breathing.

- 'One can adapt' -

He complains that the piece of cloth makes him feel suffocated and hampers his vision.

"But honestly, one can adapt," said the dancer, insisting he was pleased to be back at work.

The Opera du Rhin in Mulhouse is one of the first in France to resume training after lockdown, and is producing its own masks for its ballet company.

"It is complicated to dance with a mask," said Bruno Bouche, the troupe's artistic director, adding this was "the biggest challenge" in resuming training.

Mulhouse, near the Swiss and German borders, was one of the first hotspots of coronavirus infection in France, and remains in the high-alert "red zone" of domestic virus circulation.

Many French cases, some of which were exported as far away as South America, originated from a week-long church gathering in the city in February, attended by some 2,000 people.

Soldiers had to set up a military field hospital in Mulhouse to relieve overwhelmed hospitals and evacuated patients to other parts of the country.

After their first post-lockdown practice, the dancers leave immediately, alone. No dressing room chatter, no shower.

The studio is disinfected from top to bottom between three daily lessons which last an hour each, far shorter than the six or seven hours the dancers were accustomed to before confinement kicked in.

But the performers are grateful for even this hour, afraid of losing their form.

"Dancing is our life and holding on to a chair or to a wardrobe (to practice) for eight weeks was getting more and more complicated," said Bouche, who offered courses online during confinement.

The dancers hope their first post-lockdown performance will be "Chaplin" by German choreographer Mario Schroeder on September 5.

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