'Shut Up and Dance': Odyssey seeks the hip-hop mix

Dance • Annual spring program showcases company's melding of artistry and entertainment.
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Odyssey Dance Theatre's spring repertory program offers the Utah-based contemporary jazz company a chance to branch out artistically while maintaining its entertainment roots. "Shut Up and Dance" consists of two separate shows featuring ODT's wildly athletic yet balletic dancers.

On Thursday and Friday, Odyssey brings back its evening-length hip-hop version of Shakespeare's "Romeo + Juliet" for the fourth year in a row. Performances on Tuesday and Wednesday offer several premieres, including a tap piece by Veronica Yeager, a contemporary ballet by Derryl Yeager, a 40-minute tribute to the disco era called "Dance Fever," and the most anticipated work, "Verso la Luce," created by former ODT dancer Christian Denice.

Denice's impressive résumé includes dancing with Chicago's River North Dance Company, film and television credits and, most recently, a contract with Canada's premier jazz company, Quebec for BJM Danse (formerly Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal).

Local audiences might recognize Denice's choreography from previous Odyssey and Odyssey II performances, as well as Emmy winner Bonnie Story's Expansions showcases and Orem's summer series, Dancing Under the Stars.

Denice will miss the Salt Lake City opening of "Verso la Luce," since he will be on the road with BJM's 30-city international tour that week with stops in Boston and Beloeil, Québec. "We do somewhere close to 70 performances in one season all over the world," Denice said. "My first season, we toured a month in France and Switzerland and six weeks in South America."

Denice spent his youth in California and is excited to travel the world. But "for me Utah will always be home," he said. "Artists always say they have people or places that become their muse, and for me it is Utah. I've spent a great deal of time in Utah, surrounded by so much talent and inspiration, along with the breathtaking mountains and beautiful skies, [it] just makes me breathe creativity."

The title of Denice's work, "Verso la Luce," is an Italian phrase that translates as "toward the light." Denice said he chose to title the piece in Italian "because that is my nationality and heritage. As the piece progressed, it became a lot more personal to me and my life than I had originally anticipated."

The narrative is "about a girl who falls into a dark place and … is lured closer to the dark and the negative until she becomes completely engulfed in this dark place. The piece then shows her journey out of the darkness and towards the light."

Denice cautions viewers against following the story too literally. He said he likes to leave room in his choreography "for both dancers and audiences to find their own interpretation and their own way of connecting to the piece."

ODT associate director Eldon Johnson said the dancers were excited to work with Denice because he is "clear in his intention and direction and his choreography is so moving."

Johnson said "R+J" has been slightly tweaked, but the work's ideas and additional choreography by ODT artistic director Derryl Yeager and Ashleigh and Ryan Di Lello from "So You Think You Can Dance" remains the same overall

There are always new influences in hip hop, Johnson said, which often include a new spin on old moves. By its very nature, hip hop quickly evolves through invention in organized dance battles and shared street choreography. Fortunately, the Internet provides a window into these new forms, and Johnson suggested examples in the work of Keone Madrid and female hip-hop choreographer Parris Goebel as posted in clips on YouTube.com.

Possibly even more fascinating is a 35-minute interview with Storm, a German hip-hop artist, who places his work in a post-WWII social context and explains his intellectual process of shedding the dark history and building community through dance.

Choreographer Allison Thornton agrees about the importance of hip-hop styles in the contemporary dance world. Thornton is one of three choreographers who created "Disco Fever," the disco tribute piece that's also on "Shut Up and Dance." She danced for 10 years with Odyssey, the last three as assistant artistic director to Derryl Yeager, and now is the co-owner of Orem's Dance Club.

"I think hip-hop holds a mirror up to our culture and reflects what is happening in society," Thornton said. "Dancers and choreographers bring their own issues and the issues of the day into the studio and make art from it."

Dance styles of jazz and hip-hop are easier for "nondancers to understand and relate to, so people can enjoy the entertainment and still be getting a complex message," she said.

Thornton, Johnson and Denice all enjoy working with Odyssey dancers. "The best part of working with the Odyssey dancers is their willingness and their spirits," Denice said. "They are some of the most humble, open and honest dancers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. It all stems from the director, Derryl Yeager, who creates this environment through his own passion, love and dedication to art and to this company."

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'Shut Up and Dance'

Odyssey Dance Theatre presents its spring concert with two separate programs, including a revival of Eldon Johnson's hip hop "Romeo + Juliet" and the disco tribute "Dance Fever!," as well as three world-premiere dances.

When • Program 1: "Dance Fever!," Tuesday-Wednesday, March 5-6, 7:30 p.m.

When • Program 2: "Romeo + Juliet," Thursday-Friday, March 7-8, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25-$45 (plus service fees); military, student, Facebook, other discounts; at www.kingtix.com, 801-581-7100 From jazz to fusion

Odyssey Dance Theatre, River North Dance Chicago and BJM are repertory companies, meaning they perform work by many choreographers and styles, rather than one choreographer who most often is also the founder and director of the company. All three of these companies originate in the style of jazz, with a fusion of ballet and other styles to create an overall contemporary feel. Odyssey Dance Theater presents contemporary works, but also incorporates dramatic elements of theater work.

For example, in ODT's annual "Thriller" program, dancers work with elements such as pyrotechnics, sets, props and makeup while performing in character. Those challenges can expand a dancer's skills to include acting and theatrics. River North is a very athletic company whose works are physically and emotionally challenging. Each show places huge demands on all the dancers. "It can be an exhausting experience, but one that truly shapes you as a performer and dancer," said Christian Denice, who has danced for all three companies.

BJM is a primarily touring company and spends more time on tour than in the company's Montreal studios. The repertory is based on a rotation of five or six dances, each about 30 minutes long, with each show consisting of only three pieces. In River North, most pieces were less than 10 minutes long, with the program consisting of about seven pieces.

Short pieces challenge a dancer to connect quickly, with only a few seconds between dances where dancers are required to change costumes and mindset. "With the longer rep pieces of BJM, you are able to submerge yourself in the work and the story and explore the piece to the fullest in the 30-40 minutes you have," Denice said. "For me as a choreographer, I am drawn to the longer work so dancers can have the time and space to create their own story and enhance their artistry."

Kathy Adams