WHEN Elena Lev climbs into her translucent bubble above the Empire stage, half her mind is focused on the astonishing routine of bodily contortion and hula-hooping that she has performed, in one form or another, since her childhood in Russia.
But the other half is acutely aware of her surroundings. A few metres away on all sides, audience members crane forward, sometimes literally breathless.
Spiegelworld's Empire show comes to Melbourne
Murder accused seen stomping on toddler
Retiring the village
In Sickness, in Health ... and in Jail
Behind the walls of Darrell Lea
HGH in the underworld
The Macquarie Marshes
Opera in the bush
Spiegelworld's Empire show comes to Melbourne
Circus, cabaret and contortion converge in the 100-year-old Belgian 'mirror' tent.
She can hear them exclaim to each other, hear them gasp. She slyly catches their wide eyes.
''For me it's very important to find a look, or to hear how they react and try to grab their attention,'' Lev says over the phone from her Las Vegas home. ''It feels more pleasant, more satisfying. It's nice to be on a smaller stage and have the audience closer to you so you can connect to them. Every show feels different than the one before.''
This is the stage of Spiegelworld's Empire, barely two metres across. The performers of the circus/cabaret that will tour Australia next year perform in the round, in one of the world's few surviving 100-year-old Belgian ''mirror'' tents that have become a familiar sight at Australian festivals in the past few years.
Earlier this year, it set up in a spare lot off-Broadway in New York, the successor to the circus show Absinthe, which did the same thing in the Lower East Side a few years before. Lev, who spent years in the much loftier tents of Cirque du Soleil, just loved it.
''New York is a crazy, hectic and busy city, and as soon as I would enter the tent I would feel like I was safe, in this little magical world,'' she says. ''It's the mirrors, it's the music, it's the lighting, it's really comforting and intimate and magical and it's just fun to be in.''
Producer Ross Mollison - who grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne - cooked up Empire and its predecessor on the successful recipe pioneered by fellow Aussie David Bates.
A hero ingredient is the venue - the spiegeltent. ''That guy is a genius,'' Mollison says. ''[The spiegeltent gives] a sense of surprise and delight. I'm a hardened spiegeltent aficionado and still when I go to Bates' [The Famous] Spiegeltent when it's up in Edinburgh, I still find it kind of magical.
''Being in the round in a very tight environment like that gives you a very heightened sense of the theatrical. It's not particularly comfortable, it's not lavish, we have airconditioning but it's not great and the toilets aren't particularly great, but it's all worth it because there is this romantic aspect.''
The spiegeltents were born as dance halls in European fairgrounds, intricately designed to stand without ropes and pack into little sections that could be loaded onto carts. Most were lost with the demise of the old-fashioned fairground, and only a handful survived to the modern day, when they have transformed into high arts venues beloved by festivals.
Australia in particular has fallen for them - ''every f---ing municipality in Australia has a spiegeltent now,'' Mollison jokes. ''I think there's even one in Karratha.'' (There was, last month, at the Red Earth Festival).
The original Belgian families who have been making them for five generations are slow to build new ones, so they are still a rare commodity despite their apparent ubiquity.
Bates, whose Famous Spiegeltent visits Melbourne every year, says they have a unique mix of beauty, and structural and economic practicality - but there is another element that is harder to pin down.
''It's a really ephemeral thing - I always say that every time you use it, you pick up new ghosts,'' he says. ''An authentic spiegeltent just feels like an old European cabaret hall or something, it's got this atmosphere, it's been doing the same thing for a century.
''In Australia and New Zealand there's a great love of old Europe, it's like if there's ever an impressionist exhibition, it'll sell out months in advance.''
He says it's ''a really interesting question'' whether the increased competition from other spiegeltents is diluting the brand. He tries to distinguish his own tent by emphasising it is a ''genuine antique'', and through innovative programming with an intimate cabaret flavour.
''Shows like Absinthe or things that Ross [Mollison] has done are entirely replications of what [we] pioneered,'' he says.
Mollison built the Empire show with an American flavour, adding adult cabaret, comedy and burlesque to the core of circus acts.
He says that, for all the qualities of the spiegeltent, in the end, it's what's inside that counts. ''I think the only danger is to think that people come to see a venue - nobody does,'' he says. ''They come to see the product within, so that's where we have to make the show absolutely fantastic.
''We are very clearly looking for something that is for adults to go to, have a drink and have a lot of fun at.
''I would hesitate even to call us circus - we're just Spiegelworld.''
Empire is at Crown Entertainment Complex in March. Tickets on sale through Ticketek.