It was one of the most memorable moments in music video history: The King of Pop transforming himself into a werewolf, into a zombie, into a loving red-leather-and-zipper-sporting boyfriend.
Yes, Michael Jackson’s Thriller redefined its own medium. The 10-minute-long escapade of special effects, choreographic ingenuity and Jackson magic quickly ingrained itself onto the public consciousness—whether you wanted it to or not. Pop-music junkies the world over couldn’t help but return again and again to the thrill of Thriller.
That need to re-watch is precisely the phenomenon that Odyssey Dance Theatre’s founder Derryl Yeager was hoping to tap into when he concocted his annual Halloween spectacle—named in homage to the original.
“I was trying to create some sort of show that would be our Nutcracker,” said Yeager. “So I tried to find something that would be seasonal and give us the opportunity to showcase the dancers while all the while being entertaining.”
Now in its ninth incarnation, ODT’s jazz/ballet Thriller has in many ways achieved that phenomenon status. Locals looking for a little clean Halloween fun seemingly can’t help but return year after year to witness what Yeager classifies as one of the most exciting, if not the most entertaining, annual dance productions. Last year they sold 12,000 seats in Salt Lake City alone, and this year they hope to hit 15,000. Most of those will apparently be return costumers.
“Why the show appeals to so many people is that it takes all these commonly known Halloween characters and twists them just a little bit, usually in a comedic manner that’s very entertaining,” said Yeager. “For instance, this year we have Freddy Krueger in the production singing a song called, ‘All I Care About Is Love.’ Every time he sings the song he kills somebody.”
That familiarity-plus-comedy formula seems to be working. The opening number “Thriller”—which is basically a bunch of dead zombies dancing—sets the tone for the rest of the production. Other past favorites follow—including “Curse of the Mummy,” where a mummy comes to life and can’t help but just break into some madly entertaining hip-hop; “Dem Bones,” which features black-lit, tap-dancing skeletons; and “Frankenstein,” where the big guy pulls a Lenny from Of Mice and Men on his bride and becomes so distraught that he goes Romeo and Juliet.
Still, according to Yeager, the biggest bang for your buck as far as scary goes, is a piece based on that great ’80s (see a theme?) urban vampire flick The Lost Boys—in spite of the fact that the Coreys have no direct role in this production, which all agree would be really scary. “All these vampires basically attack this one girl, which we call the ‘Meal.’ They chew on her a little bit at the end and then she turns into a vampire herself. It’s really an amazing piece with some amazing choreography. And [just a reminder] it’s very entertaining.”
The show closes with what Yeager thinks is one of the “most brilliant” things he’s ever staged: “River of Blood Dance.” “We all put up with Riverdance for far too long. They do some great stuff but it always drove us crazy as dancers to see these people that didn’t dance with their arms at all. As I was watching them, I thought, ‘You know, they kind of look like sitting ducks out there.’ And then my mind kind of twisted a little bit and I went, ‘Wait a minute, OK, this is interesting.’”
Try to imagine it: A line of Riverdancers. A shot rings out and a pretty young redhead goes down. All hell breaks loose as the stage becomes a shooting gallery full of toe-dancing girls trying to avoid the crosshairs of a sniper. Then, pulling out all the stops, onto the stage dances “Michael Fatly,” a really large guy that hits the stereotypical poses from Riverdance’s ex-lead before being mowed down by large-scale machine-gun fire.
“It’s just a very, very funny number,” said Yeager. “Even though it has a macabre sense of humor, people really seem to enjoy it. People find themselves laughing, scared and entertained all at the same time.”
And entertainment is obviously the key focus for ODT’s Thriller. It continually drives Yeager to create new pieces for the show—this year’s is an aerial acrobatic piece called “Black Widow” which he promises to be “just amazing”—that are purposefully not too high brow in order to keep all ages, from all walks of life interested. And yes, entertained.
“I call ourselves the common-man dance company,” says Yeager. “Where Joe Blow and Joe Farmer will come to the show and go, ‘OK, that’s OK.’ We’ve had the comment so many times from people, ‘You know, I don’t really like dance, but that was cool.’ That’s very exciting for me, because I think that if you’re trying to entertain someone, at some point you should really entertain someone. And Thriller does that.”