Think of it as an alternate version of “The Nutcracker.”
If, that is, the popular Tchaikovsky ballet were actually based on a teen slasher movie.
Odyssey Dance Theatre’s wildly popular “Thriller” returns to Provo next week, continuing a Halloween tradition that’s begun to rival the ubiquitous performances of the annual holiday ballet. “Thriller” will be prancing its way through a six-show run Tuesday through Oct. 12 at the Covey Center For the Arts.
The show has been a popular fixture every year at this time, not just in Provo, but throughout the state as well.
“I don’t know what it is about Utahns,” said Derryl Yeager, ODT founder and artistic director, “but they just love their Halloween.”
A former Ballet West principal dancer who was also a veteran of Broadway, television and film, Yeager formed Odyssey Dance Theatre in 1994. When he first started the dance company, Yeager said he felt the need to create a popular annual show — “like a ‘Nutcracker’ or something” — to help fund the ODT season. But he also knew he didn’t want it to be “Nutcracker.”
“So, at that time I didn’t want to do ‘The Nutcracker’ at all,” he recalled. “I’d had plenty with Ballet West; I’d had my fill of ‘Nutcrackers.’ ”
Yeager says his first thought was to do a full-length “Dracula” production for Halloween. But he realized that was going to cost a lot of money — something he didn’t have a lot of at the time.
It was one of ODT’s board members who said, “How about smaller dances featuring Halloween characters?”
And thus “Thriller” was born.
“We thought the opening number would have to be ‘Thriller,’ because Michael Jackson decided a long time ago that zombies have to dance,” Yeager said. “So we made that our opening number.”
The company added a Frankenstein-dancing-with-the-Bride-of-Frankenstein number, another called “Curse of the Mummy,” and one featuring Jason from the “Friday the 13th” movies. Before long, they had an entire show.
“We started off at Kingsbury Hall, with four performances,” Yeager said. “I remember the guy with the theater called the week before and said, ‘You’ve only sold 50 tickets, maybe you should cancel it.’ I’m like, ‘Man, even the theater doesn’t believe in me.’ ”
But Yeager still believed. He thought they really had something with “Thriller.”
“So we opened, and sold a little more than 50 tickets that first time,” he said. “But the response was pretty amazing. People really, really enjoyed it.”
Yeager says it took ODT about three years to build up a following for “Thriller.” By the fourth year, they were selling out performances.
Yeager began expanding shows throughout the state to the point where this year, ODT will perform an incredible 56 shows in September and October.
“We just performed last night in Price, then we’re opening this weekend in Park City and we’ll be there the next three weekends,” he said recently. “In between we’re also going to Ogden and Logan, then Provo for a week and Kingsbury Hall (in Salt Lake City) for a couple of weeks before going to St. George.”
These days, “Thriller” is staged in seven venues around the state.
Says Yeager: “The demand is so huge, it’s hard to keep up with it.”
The 2019 version of “Thriller” will involve six or seven “staples” — dance numbers that have been there from the beginning and that audiences wouldn’t let Yeager get rid of even if he wanted to. “The Curse of the Mummy,” “Frankenstein,” “Jason Jam” and “Salem’s Mass,” to name a few.
“And there’s a piece called ‘Lost Boys’ about a bunch of vampires who attack a girl,” he said. “I just call her ‘The Meal.’ ”
Yeager says it’s been amazing to see how those original pieces still hold up after 23 years.
“That also speaks to the feeling I had at the beginning: That there’s something special we have here, that this might have legs,” he said.
Of course, “Thriller” adds a few new dances each year as well. This time, it’ll be “Annabelle of the Ball,” as well as a new finale for the show called “Trick or Treat,” according to Yeager. There also will be some aerial acts that add a Cirque du Soleil feel to the evening.
“There’s some new production elements that you will definitely want to catch,” he said. “If you’ve seen ‘Thriller’ before, it’s time to come back and see it again. Because every year, we do something new and different.”
“Thriller” is recommended for ages 8 and older.
Perhaps the best part, according to Yeager, is that even people who don’t like dance tend to enjoy themselves at a “Thriller” show.
“We get comments from guys who get dragged to dance things all the time,” Yeager said. “And they’ll go, ‘I don’t like dance, but that was cool.’ They find they don’t have to give away their man card at this one. They can show off their artistic side to their significant others, but also enjoy it themselves.”