When the Odyssey Dance Theatre premiered its hip-hop version of "Romeo + Juliet," time was an issue.
"We were still choreographing the afternoon of opening night," said ODT's artistic director Derryl Yeager. "We were lucky to get it on stage, and to tell you the truth, we didn't really know what we had. When it was all finished, we looked back and said, 'Wow! It was kind of cool.'"
Still, it didn't hit Yeager how cool it was until he relaxed and watched some rehearsals.
"It's just an amazing piece, and I'm so excited to do it again," he said. "The choreography is awesome, and the story is told in a simple way and gets the point across.
"I do think it's one of the more interesting things we've ever done," he said.
That's saying a lot when taking ODT's success with holiday favorites such as "Thriller" and "It's a Wonderful Life" into consideration.
"There's something really unique about how we put 'Romeo' together," Yeager said.
ODT's associate artistic director and "Romeo + Juliet" choreographer Eldon Johnson said he remembers how the work got to the stage.
"The tour company we work with in Europe wanted to see a hip-hop version of 'Romeo + Juliet,' " he said. "They passed their idea to Derryl, and he asked if I'd be interested in choreographing it."
Johnson admitted to being hesitant at first.
"The more we talked about it, the more ideas flowed, and then it clicked," he said. "We knew it would be like a hybrid of the Shakespeare play and 'West Side Story,' which is essentially the same story. But we found the pieces of each production, pulled them apart and created a hybrid."
Like Yeager, Johnson was surprised at how well the work was received.
"It was a bit overwhelming," he said. "But I knew the dancers and the company were capable of making it great."
This time around, Yeager has noticed how comfortable the dancers appear during rehearsals.
"They're not thinking about choreography," he said. "They're thinking about the characters within the choreography. I can tell the dancers feel better because most of them have done this work before and have a better handle on it."
Johnson, who plays Romeo to Jen Pendleton's Juliet said they, along with the other dancers, are focused on the emotional aspects of the characters.
"The traits and 'isms' are finding their place in the interpretations," he said. "They've been able to concentrate more and transfer their emotions to the stage."
"Eldon is dancing it better than last year," Yeager said. "He has a very unique movement style and doesn't cease to amaze me in what he can do, and how he can do it. He has a unique vision of where he sees movement going, and he's found movement that expresses an idea on stage so clearly.
"He and Jen have some wonderful moments on stage together," Yeager said. "Their dancing is so powerful."
To also help with the overall presentation, Johnson tweaked and tightened bits to help the production flow. Also, the addition of new dancers in some of the roles brought new dimensions to the characters.
"Choreographically, we pumped up things that were a little flat," he said. "There also was some staging we needed to move around, as well."
Another change this year was taking out the intermission poll where the audience could text the company whether or not the two lovebirds would live or die, Yeager said.
"We all felt it was better for the production to end in the traditional way," he said. "I can't imagine 'Romeo + Juliet' with a happy ending. I can't see Romeo sitting shirtless on a couch watching 'Survivor.' "
"Romeo + Juliet" is part of the Odyssey Dance Theatre's "Shut Up and Dance" productions that run March 10 through 19, at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall.
The other production, "Dreamscapes," is an evening of repertoire featuring the premiere of Christina Bluth's "In the Shadow," Act II of Yeager's modern tale of "Giselle" and the premiere of "Heap," which Yeager choreographed to the music of Imogen Heap.
"'Shut Up and Dance' shows the tremendous breadth of the abilities of the company," Yeager said. "To see all these styles from one company is remarkable."