Yaron Lifschitz, the artistic director of contemporary Australian circus outfit Circa, admits to a bout of pre-show nerves before his new work Peepshow debuted in Berlin in 2018. The Chamäleon Theatre, where it was playing, is regarded as the spiritual home of contemporary circus.

He needn’t have worried. The sultry circus-cabaret-burlesque show played for a record season, to rave reviews.

“We performed for seven months with two shows on a Saturday – kids and families at five o’clock, comparatively traditional audiences, then the late show had hens’ nights in from London, people out for big nights before going clubbing, they loved it,” Lifschitz, who joined the company in 2003, tells Broadsheet. “It’s proof that Peepshow really does work for everyone – it’s sexy and it’s funny and it’s cool, but it’s also approachable. It’s quite a wild ride.”

Circa might be one of the busiest performing arts companies on the planet right now. The Brisbane-based troupe has managed to turn 2020 into a positive year, filled with both online and real-life performances.

Last March, the 70-strong company was touring in France and Perth and preparing for a show in Auckland when Covid-19 hit. The troupe was recalled to Brisbane, most of them spending the mandatory two weeks in hotel quarantine. Nevertheless, they got right to work.

“Covid hit us a lot less badly in some ways as we were already geared up to work remotely; we’d been using Zoom as our company platform for about three years because I spend half a year on the road,” says Lifschitz. “We worked in parks, backyards and living rooms.”

It turns out Circa is also very persuasive when it comes to lobbying: it was the first Australian performing arts company allowed back into the rehearsal room, and one of the first to return to the stage. All up the company performed around 180 shows in 2020, and in January 2021 alone performed three world premieres, including Humans 2.0 at Sydney Festival. It has three shows coming up, including Cube Studies in Santiago, Chile. (Circa taught local circus artists and physical theatre and dance performers the choreography via Zoom.)

One of those is Peepshow, which is running at the Sydney Opera House until February 14. Performed to an absorbing score composed by musician, drummer and DJ Ori Lichtik (who also composed the score for Humans 2.0), Peepshow features acrobatics, trapeze, straps, burlesque and juggling. There’s not a clown or lion in sight.

“It’s contemporary circus,” Lifschitz explains. “Ten or 15 years ago people would say, ‘It’s circus, but not like you know it’. Now people say ‘It’s Circa, they’re great shows, come see ’em’.”

Regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary circus companies, Circa has performed in 40 countries on six continents to more than one million people from New York to London to Adelaide. Lifschitz believes the reason for its success is multifaceted.

“The great thing about circus is it isn’t boring. I trained as a theatre director, [but some people] go to the theatre and find plays boring. I want to make theatre that isn’t boring. I think [Circa] connects people on a deep, powerful, human, visceral level that’s an authentic way of communicating in the theatre,” he says. “But I also think a lot of it has to do with lucky timing – you have to be in the right place at the right time. There’s no magic ingredient, everyone in this industry works hard.”

Peepshow is named after the (thankfully mostly outdated) concept of underground shows where men go to “peep” on women, but in Lifschitz’s hands the narrative explores the notion of how watching and being watched alters our behaviour. The cast of eight – all astonishing athletes whose backgrounds range from circus to gymnastics and dance – perform gasp-inducing physical feats that often defy logic or gravity.

Lifschitz is directing the Sydney show remotely via Zoom – he’s based in Brisbane, where he’s currently directing another world premiere: Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show, which opens at QPAC next month in conjunction with the stop-motion show’s creator, Aardman Animations. Described by the company as “gleefully postmodern, where the world of animation and acrobats blends in increasingly baroque and fabulously playful ways”, Lifschitz says what it most certainly is not is “an early childhood show”.

“We’ve never done a show like this before. I’m excited to make it, but today it’s just grass and terror,” he says, describing the performance space before him. It’s not a situation that makes him uncomfortable, mind you. With no nets, tricks or CGI, when it comes to Circa what you see is what you get – and what you get is pretty mind-blowing.

“Looking at people doing extreme physical things and then converting that into theatrical experiences with emotion and meaning and story from time to time is a great thing to be doing.”

Peepshow is playing at the Sydney Opera House until February 14. Buy tickets here.