When Odyssey Dance Theatre first did “Thriller” 22 years ago, founder and artistic director Derryl Yeager never imagined the show would eventually sell out performances in September.

“When we first started, I thought, ‘Maybe we’ll be able to fill out the whole October doing it or something like that,’ but I never thought we’d start this early,” Yeager said. “It’s been going very, very well. We’ve had sold-out houses ever since we started on the 21st of September.”

Since its humble beginnings of selling only 50 tickets for four performances at Kingsbury Hall a week before opening that first year, Odyssey Dance Theatre’s “Thriller” has become an annual Utah Halloween tradition, with two companies doing 56 shows from Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden to Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins this year.

“It’s just amazing how Utahns just love their Halloween,” Yeager said.

This year’s tour also included a performance at Idaho State University. The show has previously toured out of state in locations like New Mexico and New Orleans as well.

“It’s very well-received wherever we go,” Yeager said. “Maybe one of these days, we could see it happening on Broadway. Who knows?”

“Thriller” includes a series of dance numbers featuring a variety of Halloween characters, from zombies to mummies. Peiter Mortensen, a dancer in his sixth season with Odyssey Dance Theatre, said the show’s choreography gives dancers the freedom to be scary and ugly within the beautiful technique.

“I think a big part of it is the makeup, props, lighting and costumes,” Mortensen said. “All of those elements create ‘Thriller.’ ”

The show also features various dance styles, including ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop and ballroom. Darby Jones, a dancer now in her fifth season with Odyssey Dance Theatre, said switching between dance styles so quickly is “no easy feat.”

“There are times where you have to throw your pointe shoes on after being a zombie and all you get is a few releves before you hit the stage,” Jones said. “We just trust in our training that we have worked so hard on to get us here.”

Though Yeager changes the show a little each year, favorite dances like “Thriller,” “Frankenstein” and “Dem Bones” remain.

“Most of the staples from the original production are still in the show, and that speaks to the strength of the pieces that we created that very first year,” Yeager said.

New dances in this year’s show will include the return of a scary number called “The Grudge” and “The Justice League: The Short Version,” which will include Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

“You kind of have to see it to understand it, but it’s very, very funny,” Yeager said of “The Justice League” dance.

The humor in numbers like “Jason Jam,” featuring a Jason who “didn’t quite graduate from Jason school,” is what Yeager thinks brings people back to “Thriller” year after year.

“Typically, dance performances are like, ‘Woe is me,’ and, ‘I’m working out my demons onstage,’ and all this stuff, but it’s very rare that you get a situation where the dancers come in and they’re dancing onstage and people are actually laughing and enjoying it and getting the jokes,” Yeager said. “That’s just a very unusual thing, and I think that we’ve captured that in a very unique way.”

Odyssey Dance Theatre held company auditions in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago this year, but 80 percent of the dancers are from Utah, according to Yeager.

“It’s really amazing when you go to these places and audition that the dancers that are here in Utah still are the best,” Yeager said.

Yeager said several Odyssey Dance Theatre performers also have been featured on TV dance competitions like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

“It’s just amazing to see that happen,” Yeager said. “We do all these different styles on a regular basis, and so when they go to audition for these things, they stand out immediately because they already have the training and experience.”

Jones said she loves the variety of characters she gets to play in “Thriller,” as well as hearing the audience react to the pieces in the show.

“I love when I can hear that the audience is having as much fun out there as I am having onstage,” Jones said. “I think that’s what makes our show so special and such a tradition for so many people.”

Features Reporter

Sarah Harris writes about arts and entertainment for the Daily Herald.

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