Regulars and Shorts

Dance: It’s Thrilling

By Amy Brunvand

Odyssey Dance’s equivalent to "The Nutcracker."
by Amy Brunvand
Back in 1998, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a small, recently formed dance company called Utah Contemporary Dance Theatre was facing financial ruin.

But by 2008 the same company, now known as Odyssey Dance Theatre, had 24 dancers including a touring company. It was doing European tours and performing in New York City; it was invited to perform in Beijing for the Summer Olympics; and it was all over the national news when two company dancers made it into the top 20 on the hit TV show "So You Think You Can Dance." (Matt Dorame and Thayne Jasperson, for those of you who watch).

What happened to turn things around? For one thing Derryl Yeager found his "Nutcracker."

Yeager, ODT’s artistic director who founded the company in 1994, was formerly a principal dancer in Ballet West so he was well aware that the Nutcracker is the money-maker that keeps many dance companies afloat. "I did my share of Nutcrackers," says Yeager. "But it’s the one show all season that provides a healthy income. I knew I needed to create a financial base to enable us to hire choreographers and create new pieces. So my intent was to create a financial juggernaut."

With the Christmas niche already occupied by the Nutcracker, Yeager decided to go with the nightmare before Christmas and develop a Halloween show. He says, "Originally I was thinking of doing something like a full-length Dracula, but someone suggested small vignettes and I started jotting things down. There are tons of Halloween characters to create something unique and different." Yeager says that he is not a big fan of horror movies himself, but he really enjoys the way that audiences react to them, and that made him think people might respond well to a Halloween dance production.

The idea developed into "Thriller," a ballet/ modern/jazz/hip-hop/tap/ballroom spook-alley extravaganza featuring hip-hop mummies, tap-dancing skeletons, cavorting horror-movie baddies like Jason and Chuckie, a romantic pas-de-deux between Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, and a spoof of Riverdance titled "River of Blood."

Yeager booked the first four Thriller shows at Kingsbury Hall in 1997, and at first it looked like nobody would come.

As Yeager tells it, "I remember the guy called me and said, ‘Derryl, you’ve only sold like 50 tickets to this thing and maybe you should cancel,’ but I knew it was something special. I thought it would grow by word of mouth. We didn’t do terrifically well. We had two or three hundred but attendance built with each performance. It was probably two years after that we had our first sold-out show; that was the moment we realized we have turned the corner. Last year we did 14 performances in Salt Lake City and sold out every one. In the end I was justified in throwing caution to the wind."

The show has become a tradition for Utah dancers as well as audience members. Just as some kids dream of dancing at Clara’s Christmas Nutcracker party, others dream of being Chuckie, the homicidal doll. "We had auditions last week for the Chuckie kids," says Yeager. "We had nineyear-olds dancing around with a knife. We had over 110 kids show up for auditions and we put together six different casts."

"Thriller"has become the financial juggernaut Yeager envisioned. He says that 80% of the company budget comes from ticket sales, and it has enabled him to carry out his vision for Odyssey Dance Theatre. "My mission is to bring dance to the masses," he says, "Not just the symphony and opera crowd. We have created a whole new audience for dance."

"Thriller" has also become a genuine tradition, and one thing Yeager loves about it is the way people respond. He says that a clinical psychologist who came to the show is writing an article called "Deconstructing Thriller" explaining what it is about the show that helps people release. Yeager thinks it helps people cope with horrors in the news: "At the end of the show is ‘River of Blood’-Riverdance turns into a shooting gallery and the girls are getting picked off one by one by a sniper. I had people telling me, ‘Derryl, you shouldn’t do this piece’ because shootings were going on back East. I didn’t want a madman to dictate my performance but nonetheless I was worried. The shot was fired, the girl went down and people started laughing, and I said Whew!!!"

Another time Yeager recalls doing numbers from "Thriller" at a treatment center for kids with behavioral problems, and "as things loosened up we had an audience participation moment and the dancer shouted "Stand up!" and the counselors were like "No, it’s against the rules! Sit down!" But when we did Jason Jam at the end, the kids were laughing their heads off. You could see the whole change in their demeanor. What a wonderful thing to be able to see kids with such problems smiling and laughing. If the whole world could laugh, it changes everything.

"Halloween takes the political correctness out of our lives and allows us to do whatever makes us laugh," says Yeager.

"I’ll get letters every year from someone who thinks this is horrible, and I think, you guys need to lighten up and have fun."

Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and librarian at the University of Utah.

THRILLER October 15-November 1. Kingsbury Hall, University of Utah

(Stadium TRAX). Tickets:

See website for performances in St. George, Logan, Provo and Ogden. Odyssey Dance Theatre:

This article was originally published on September 30, 2008.