HUNTER dancers Jasmine Bard and Becky Higgins have returned to the City of Lights to resume their roles with the world-famous Moulin Rouge, which will reopen on September 10.
Ms Bard and Ms Higgins flew from Australia to Paris on June 8 and resumed intensive rehearsals for the historic cabaret on June 15.
"But as soon as we started rehearsing it felt like I had never left and that not much time had passed."
Ms Higgins, 20, of Garden Suburb said she experienced "all sorts of emotions" returning to the Red Mill, situated at the foot of Montmartre. She started performing with the company in May 2019.
"I was so excited to be back and to see all of my friends who I hadn't seen in ages," Ms Higgins said.
"Getting back into rehearsals was also exciting and nerve-racking at the same time, but our dance instructors took it easy and slow with us to begin with to help with prevention of injuries."
Since landing in France the pair have also appeared in fashion parades on the Galeries Lafayette Glasswalk, high above shoppers.
Ms Bard - formerly of Branxton - has also performed new routines for an advertisement in a "surreal setting", on the rooftop of the department store's flagship building, overlooking the Paris Opera House and Eiffel Tower, plus travelled to the south of France, Greece and Malta.
Ms Bard and Ms Higgins - who both attended Hunter School of the Performing Arts - spent 15 months away from the stage and regular performance.
They and the 58 other performers from 14 countries - Australia is the most heavily represented - have been rehearsing four to six days a week since June, doing classes and conditioning and revising routines including the iconic can-can for the two-hour show, Féerie.
"Moulin have been really good about easing us back into rehearsals whilst having a COVID safe plan, which meant rehearsals felt a little different to what we were once used to," Ms Bard said.
"We were all placed into small groups and worked off a timetable which included classes of technique, strength and conditioning as well as rehearsal classes.
"Getting back into rehearsals wasn't a big shock for my body as when I was home I made sure I was staying fit and dancing."
Ms Bard took dance classes, taught at Robyn Yvette Dance Centre and SBDS Dance and Cheer, ran and went to the gym.
"However rehearsing for the can-can is very intense, so there were days where my body was quite sore. I didn't forget any routines, but let's just say a few felt a little rusty.
"But as soon as I put the music on and ran through them it all came rushing back."
Ms Higgins took a month off dance when she returned home, but then started classes at Newcastle Dance Academy and attending two different gyms.
She also decided to study ballet full-time and completed her Certificate IV in Dance.
"Getting back into the show was super easy," she said.
"As soon as the music came on all of the choreography came back to me. I didn't really struggle with that as I had taken a CD of the music for the show back to Australia with me, so every now and then I would put the music on and go through the movement."
The pair left Europe last March when the Moulin Rouge closed as COVID-19 spread across the globe.
"It was very unsettling, scary and an uncertain time so I just wanted to be safe and get home to my family as soon as possible," Ms Bard said.
"Originally I didn't think I would be home for so long.
"I don't think anyone could imagine that COVID would stop the whole world in it's tracks for so long.
"There were plenty of times when we thought we would go back to reopen, but as COVID kept coming in waves, plans kept changing."
Ms Higgins had already booked a three-week trip home and so was able to leave quickly.
"My plane landed five hours before the Australian government put in the two-week quarantine rules, so I didn't have to quarantine, but I still got tested just to make sure I didn't pick up the virus and bring it to Australia with me."
Ms Bard said she relished spending the time with family, close friends and her dog, as well as at the beach.
"I just didn't want to take any time I had with them for granted, because at any time I could be asked to leave again," she said.
"Even though it was COVID times, I am so so grateful I got to spend so much time at home with my family and friends. I got to be home for birthdays, Easter and Christmas.
"I got to stand beside my sister as her maid of honour at her wedding. This will always be one of the best days of my life and most treasured memories. Watching the world suffer through a pandemic, I felt so lucky to be an Australian and to be able to be home and be safe surrounded by all my loved ones."
She said the time away was a reminder of how much she loved performing and dancing, but also encouraged her to look at other ideas and interests. "I also learnt that the simple and little things in life can bring you as much happiness and love and it is very important to appreciate them," she said.
When it came time to return to Europe, Ms Bard said, she felt "nervous of the unknown". She was vaccinated soon after she arrived.
"I didn't know exactly what the COVID situation was really going to be like, what it'd be like to live there now, if there was going to be a second wave, what would happen if we went into lockdown," she said.
"But now that I am here, I am happy and have settled back into life in Paris."
Both Ms Bard and Ms Higgins are on permanent contracts. Ms Bard appears in a featured snake solo role and the can-can duo, while Ms Higgins is on the dancer line and a replacement can-can soloist.
"Performing this routine in front of a crowd is so thrilling, as it's what the audience gets the most excited about because it's so exciting to watch and everyone instantly recognises the music once it comes on," Ms Higgins said.
She said she had "never felt so excited" as she does about the show reopening.
"During COVID I had missed performing on the world famous stage so much that it made me have a new appreciation for the show," she said.
Media have attended rehearsals over the past few weeks to cover the reopening.
"So from now onwards to the show it's really starting to feel real!
"We are also starting to practise in our proper shoes for each dance, as well as our plumes and can- can skirts.
"Everyone is starting to get really excited so the atmosphere in the room when we are practicing our dances - it really is incredible."
Ms Bard said she felt mostly excited, with a touch of nerves.
"I can't wait for the moment where the curtains rise and the music starts, seeing the live audience in the theatre," she said. "My heart starts racing thinking about it."
She said it had not yet been confirmed when the show will return to six days a week.
"I really hope it won't be too long before we are back doing full weeks with full audiences," she said.