By Xihao Jiang and Martin Pollard

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Ten ballet dancers train at a barre, straightening their lithe limbs and standing on their toes to the accompaniment of a classical pianist.

This could be any regular day at the Shanghai Ballet Company – one of China’s top troupes, founded in 1979 – except that everyone in the room is wearing a mask due to the coronavirus.

The dancers returned this week after the Lunar New Year break, which had been extended because of the outbreak, and some are finding it hard to train while breathing through a mask.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve trained with a mask on,” lead dancer Wu Husheng said.

“I think I need to improve my physical strength because after a few motions, I found it difficult to breathe.”

Wu, 33, says he can normally train for an hour at a time, but he feels breathless in just 20 minutes with the mask on. 

Shanghai, like much of China, is urging people to stay home amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 2,200 and infected over 75,000 on the mainland.

But head of the Shanghai Ballet, Xin Lili, says that a fortnight of self-quarantine imposed by city authorities may have already left the dancers behind schedule for their April performances – if those are allowed to go ahead.

The ballet troupe has also been depleted as some dancers have been unable to return from their hometowns amid strict travel curbs aimed at containing the coronavirus epidemic.

“We need to start training,” Xin said. “We cannot lie at home for a long time. Of course, safety is a top priority. We have a big red blanket at the entrance to the building, and I ask for it to be sterilized every two or three hours.”

The ensemble, like other sectors of China’s economy, has been hit hard by the epidemic.

At least 30 of its performances have been postponed, including some scheduled for Australia and Hong Kong.    

“I do worry about the health of the dancers sometimes,” Xin continued. “But we are taking precautions such as ensuring the temperature in their apartment block is kept high enough so that they don’t catch a cold.”

(Reporting by Xihao Jiang and Martin Pollard; Writing by Karishma Singh; Editing by Himani Sarkar)