This fall, sold-out venues throughout Utah will host performances of Odyssey Dance Company’s annual Halloween production Thriller. It’s a high note for the company to go out on as founder Derryl Yeager closes up shop after nearly 30 years—and a degree of success Yeager might not have been able to imagine after the company’s first performance.
A veteran choreographer and former principal dancer for Ballet West, Yeager launched Odyssey Dance in 1994 in part to fill a niche that he didn’t see represented anywhere else in the Utah dance market at that time. “When I first thought about starting the company I thought, there’s Ballet West, there’s Ririe-Woodbury, there’s RDT, but there’s no jazz component,” Yeager says. “I’d met several really talented dancers that didn’t necessarily want to move to New York to have a career. … My inspiration was Hubbard Street out of Chicago, they were more of a jazz company. If they can do it , we can give it a try here. And lucky for me, there’s a lot of talent here.”
Yeager recruited a lot of that talent for an initial production at the University of Utah’s Marriott Center for Dance, but the initial financial prospects were daunting; “I was going to pay the dancers, but we didn’t make enough money to do so,” he recalls. He knew that the long-term viability of the company would require a big “cash-cow” production, like Ballet West has every year with The Nutcrackerthat helps support the rest of what the company does.
Yeager’s original concept for such a show was a full-length Dracula for the Halloween season. “At that time, nobody was doing anything for Halloween,” he says. “But [for Dracula] I’d need really big sets and costumes, and I had no money. Somebody suggested, ‘Maybe just do a couple of vignettes.’ At that time, Michael Jackson had decided that zombies dance. I was thinking this could be a really great opening number. And then I thought about what other characters are out there.”
Ultimately, the result was Thriller, a musical revue built around classic horror iconography but with a family-friendly, funny twist. While the show has gone on to become a successful tradition—exactly the kind of money-maker Yeager initially envisioned—that wasn’t necessarily evident from the show’s first production. “We had four performances scheduled at Kingsbury Hall,” Yeager says. “[Then-Kingsbury Hall director] Greg Geilmann called me into his office and says, ‘You’ve only sold like 50 tickets; maybe you should cancel.’ I knew what we had created, and that a lot of it was really special. I figured, if we’re going to go down, let’s go down in flames.”
The attendance might have been thin for that first year, but word-of-mouth was strong. The following year, crowds were bigger; for the third year, Thriller had its first sold-out show.
Yeager describes that show as one of his best memories from the company’s history: “It affirmed that what we’re doing was appreciated by an audience, and that we could make money doing it.”
Over the subsequent decades, Odyssey continued to grow, adding a Christmas production and a spring repertory season, plus more than 15 years of European tours. It’s been a great ride, Yeager says, but he’s decided that it’s time to move on, as he and his wife prepare to go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in early 2023.
“We wanted to serve a mission before we’re too old and decrepit,” Yeager says. “We thought about [leaving the company in someone else’s hands] a lot, but the problem was, we just never really ran into anybody who could do what we do. There’s no manual on how to run a dance company. … There’s lots of opportunities for people to follow in our footsteps if they’d like, but honestly, I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. Because it’s not easy.”
Leading up to these final performances of Thriller has included selling off many of the items from their warehouse of costumes in July—and that sale was when the reality of Odyssey Dance wrapping up really started to land for Yeager. “People were coming up and buying particular costumes, and that costume had its own story,” he says. “We knew who wore it, what piece it was in. … All these stories bubbled up, and it was hard to let them go.”
Yeager says that he isn’t closing the door entirely on his artistic career, focusing for the moment on the mission ahead of him. It’s possible, he says, that upon his return he may bring Odyssey Dance back (he’s hanging on to the Thriller costumes, just in case). Or he might attempt to re-start the performing arts charter school he launched which unfortunately had to close in 2018. But there’s one thing he’s thinking about doing before he departs that could bring the Odyssey story full circle.
“I’ve thought about calling all those people [who were in the first production] and giving them some money,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Remember 28 years ago?’ They were instrumental in that very first season in jumping on board with me to create something. And it’s been quite an odyssey since then.”