URBANA — Have you ever wondered why Australia is called Oz?
It's because Australians pronounce "aus" as "oz," according to Jeremy Davies, who hails from Down Under and is a performer in Circus Oz, which will offer up three shows next weekend at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
And even though "The Wizard of Oz" is more famous, everyone in Australia knows Circus Oz, he said.
The theatrical circus (no animals, but some of the performers act like animals, Davies said) was founded in 1978, and by the early '80s, it was really big in Oz.
"We actually predate Cirque du Soleil," Davies said from Las Vegas, one of the troupe's recent tour stops. "Just about everyone in Australia has seen it at some point. Parents will say, '20 years ago, I was in this seat.' It's great for me because I was probably in the audience looking at the same act."
Circus Oz, though, doesn't present the same act year after year.
"We change it day to day; we tweak it constantly," Davies said. "We have new ideas. We keep it fresh. When we go out of Australia, the show becomes more international, but we don't sacrifice our Australian feel."
In a way, the Circus Oz performers and musicians are cultural ambassadors, drawing on the Aussie sense of humor, friendliness and lack of pretension.
"From the time you walk into the theater, we have performers chatting with the audience. They're very ironic, tongue in-cheek," Davies said. "We tend to celebrate action heroes but pull them down and make them human. The least heroic person will thrust forward and save the day. That's very Australian."
Critic Rachel Saltz of The New York Times also described the Melbourne-based group's "From the Ground Up" show as fast and furious, "a little naughty, a little nice, a little death-defying.
"Recommended for ages 5 and over, 'From the Ground Up' has an appeal that owes something to vaudeville as well as the circus," she wrote. "Not that it stints on the physical thrills: There are plenty of acrobatics and ceiling-scraping, rope-swinging feats, which earn genuine gasps from the kids in the house.
"The music's good, too. There's a live rock band — one skit features a guitar versus air-guitar duel — and songs like 'Super Freak' and 'Tell Me Something Good' are the house music."
The only dull patches in the show, she wrote, came as lessons about diversity and tolerance disguised as comedy. (Circus Oz includes two aboriginal performers and one from New Zealand.)
Davies said he was happy with the Times review and thought it was fair.
"I wish I had more of a mention," he joked.
Now on his second tour with Circus Oz, he is a comedic performer and sort of emcee in the troupe. He had been an acrobat, but a neck injury halted that.
Davies, 40, started performing when he was 17. He freelanced before joining Circus Oz, where he's a company and board member.
Company members receive shares in the not-for-profit business and have a say in the future of the company.
And, "I've learned a lot from being on the board, about company structure," Davies said. "Now I could leave with other skills than just being a performer."
Circus Oz is making its Krannert Center debut this week but is familiar in New York City, where it spends a month each year at a theater on 42nd Street. When the group has more time on a stop like New York, it does community outreach.
"We have action programs and take kids at-risk and teach them how to act," Davies said. "Circus Oz does that well. It goes into communities to perform for free and do workshops. ... We really like to get out there in communities and see what's going on."
Circus Oz performers also are allowed to express themselves.
"Older performers hired are encouraged to learn new skills and write their own acts," Davies said. "We have a lab for six to eight weeks a year to try new ideas. We're encouraged to do that on a daily basis as well without compromising our safety.
"We don't clone or franchise our shows. We choose performers on the basis of them being multiskilled. That means we can create and improvise, and it allows them to develop the shows."
If you go
What: The theatrical (no animals) Australian Circus Oz presents its "From the Ground Up" show.
When: 7 p.m. Friday; 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: For evening performances, $32 for adults, $27 for senior citizens, $15 for students and $10 for University of Illinois students and youths; for the one-hour Saturday matinee, $17, $12, $8 and $8
Information: 333-2680; http://www.krannertcenter.com