Before I could reach the steps of Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah last night, the Thriller experience had begun. Performers of the Odyssey Dance Theatre were outside, dressed as zombies, crawling, dragging and limping up to unsuspecting patrons, ---and eliciting shrieks that echoed through the crowd.
The zombie performers’ ability to stay completely in character was very impressive. Not a smile was cracked, or a word uttered among them. As the crowd filtered into the auditorium, the zombies joined them, often taking their programs from them or staring blankly into their constantly flashing cameras. From the murmurings among the audience, it became clear that this was not the first time many of them had seen the performance. Some were even bragging about it being a Halloween tradition in their family.
As a first time attendee, I had only the slightest idea what to expect, other than it being a bunch of dances that focused on a general Halloween theme. I also knew that my ticket cost $35, which, according to the friend who paid for me, is the second most expensive ticket you can buy. Judging by the fact that the auditorium was completely full, and the number of families with multiple children I saw, I’m guessing that it becomes a pretty expensive tradition. I’ve been told that Utahns love anything that has to do with dancing, so I guess it makes sense that they’d plunk down some serious change for this performance. Odyssey Dance Theatre has a reputation as being an elite company that only picks the best dancers in the state, most of them fairly young based on the headshots in the program. People were scanning the program, pointing out cast members they know to each other while we waited for the performance to begin.
As the lights dimmed, a boisterous applause erupted from the audience. The curtain lifted to reveal a stage full of fog. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came on, and zombie dancers emerged. People cheered as the dancers took turns performing flips, lifts, and a surprising amount of break dancing moves. When the first number ended, the crowd was electric. Several performances ensued, with small-group or individual dances, a singing Lorena Bobbitt, and short films breaking up the larger ensemble pieces. Spooky lighting, fog, explosions and the occasional audience member being dragged into the performance were all meticulously included in the show, making for a very multi-sensory experience.
One of the most well-received performances of the night was the skeleton dance, apparently a staple of the show. It began with a group of white tap shoes performing perfectly in sync, lit only by a black light. As the performers fully revealed themselves, they appeared to be nothing more than tap-dancing skeletons. The effect of the black light as the only source of light during this performance was especially significant, given the myriad of effects that were in the other pieces. The dance that the skeletons did was very lively and exciting, and they got a huge applause when they finished. Another especially impressive performance was new to the show this year. It involved a solo dance to the Ghostbusters theme, with a young man dressed as one of the Ghostbusters, doing some serious breakdancing, and blasting an audience member with silly string. He performed twice during the show, with his second performance exceedingly more technically difficult than the first. His skills were remarkable. Another great dance was the “River of Blood”, where one by one, Irish Riverdancers were shot to death by an invisible assassin, presumably from the audience, while the others in the group were forced to keep the dance going or risk being shot themselves. Spoiler alert: nobody survived. Kudos for the creativity in that piece.
A few of the performances were less interesting. Though the Lorena Bobbitt song during the first act was funny and unique, her second act performance was owhere near as creative. There was also a dance during the first act that I couldn’t make any sense of. It involved a man and a woman who ventured into a cave and happened upon a girl who chased them around and climbed all over them, and eventually killed them both, though even those details were hard to decipher. I’m told during intermission that this was The Grudge, but even those who knew what the dance was supposed to be about didn’t like it. The dance that featured three “Jasons” stomping around and pulling various weapons out of trunks went way too long, and the poor girl they pulled on stage and then tried to chase away fell halfway off the stage, causing the dancers to break character while they grabbed for her and tried to keep her from getting injured. Unfortunately, that one moment was the only scary or interesting thing that happened during that performance. The dance that featured three witches dancing around and around included a series of blindingly bright explosions, which ended up detracting from the performance rather than adding to it, and left most of the audience rubbing their eyes rather than watching the dancers.
All in all, Thriller was an interesting experience, with great performances outnumbering the boring ones. It lasted almost two hours, which made it seem like money well-spent, had I actually bought my ticket. As people filed out of the hall, the zombies again tried to interact, but this time they seemed to be less effective at getting their intended reactions from people, and were often met with laughs rather than the gasps they received before the show. It became obvious to me why people love the show, and I wouldn’t hesitate to let someone buy my ticket again next year.