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In the Zone
California native Thayer Jonutz, MFA ’09, came to Michigan in 2007 with a BFA in dance from Brigham Young and five years as a professional dancer with Salt Lake City’s preeminent Repertory Dance Theatre.
Now entering his second year on the faculty at Oakland University, Thayer can say unequivocally, “I love teaching. I really enjoyed my first year, but I was scared to death. There’s going to be a classroom full of kids and they’re going to be looking to me to teach them something brilliant!” But this year will be easier. “After getting my feet wet, I realized I really do have something to teach these students.”
“Thayer came to our graduate program as a returning professional,” says Jessica Fogel, one of his professors at Michigan, “and he is still truly in his prime. He is a remarkably resonant performer, with exquisite dramatic, musical, and athletic skills.”
“I got some fantastic experience with the Repertory Dance Theatre,” Jonutz says, “through exposure to a wide range of philosophies and movement ideas. But after so many years in Utah, I had hit a plateau. I was hungry for new experience and new people to interact with.”
His initiation back to school, he says, came in the form of Rennie Harris, the Philadelphia-based choreographer who came to Ann Arbor Thayer’s first semester to set a dance on the students. Harris is known for his use of hip-hop, weaving it into the professional dance repertory. “With wit and genius, he is forging an aesthetic revolution by expanding the definition of concert dance,” Dance Magazine wrote of him.
Harris called his new work Heaven. “He gave us a riff on Rite of Spring,” wrote a local dance reviewer, “fusing hip-hop with a slow Butoh cadence and Japanese text and storyline. … the whole was riveting and powerful—and brilliantly danced, with Tomoko Takedani and Thayer Jonutz leading the ensemble toward the final sacrifice.”
The Rite of Spring, in one form or another, seems to shadow this dancer. Just last fall, he was summoned back to Ann Arbor to join the cast for Paul Taylor’s own iconoclastic, mold-busting take on the dance classic: Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Thayer knew about Taylor’s movement vocabulary from a master class led by Julie Tice, company member and U-M alumna.
“Le Sacre takes a cast of strong men,” Thayer says. “There are a lot of challenging lifts, starting from awkward positions, while still maintaining the flattened, two-dimensional stance the dance demands. When we were rehearsing last fall, I didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off.” Luckily former PTDC member Ruth Andrien, who had the lead in the original 1980 production, was called in to coach the dancers. They not only pulled it off, but did so with élan.
The work will be restaged this October when University Musical Society brings the Paul Taylor Dance Company to town. Students will perform the work on two double programs, the first time a student group will share the stage with the main company in the entire history of PTDC.
Thayer thinks this second time around might be less daunting. “For the February Power Center concert, we had a long run of performances, plus all the dress rehearsals and run-throughs the week before. That’s when it starts to get into your muscle memory,” he says. “You transform yourself from thinking about the dance to actually getting inside it, where you’re no longer on stage in front of an audience.”
It’s called being “in the zone” and it’s what most performers strive for. It’s a moment of energized focus, of single-minded immersion. Things seem to slow down; movement becomes effortless and automatic.
While at Michigan, Thayer also developed an interest in Butoh, initially sparked by Mr. Harris, who incorporated it into the work he set on the student dancers. “Just watching how he used Butoh with break dance, doing such an epic piece, was eye opening,” he says. “Rennie’s very spiritual—you can tell that’s where Butoh came into play for him. He has a peaceful demeanor, which is interesting, because you think of the opposite when you think of the hip-hop culture.”
Then the Center for World Performance Studies brought in a Butoh artist Thayer’s second year. An avant-garde performance art that has its origins in Japan after World War II, it is traditionally performed in white body makeup, enacting dark themes. “They take taboo subjects and express them in a really intense, passionate, almost grotesque way with contorted shapes and movements,” he says. “A lot of it is uncomfortably slow motion. As a viewer, you have to be really patient.” Since Thayer’s master’s thesis was about body language, the dance form held a natural fascination for him, even leading him to Japan for study in situ.
“Thayer is obviously a very accomplished technician and possesses great physical strength and beauty,” says Amy Chavasse, another of his professors at Michigan, “but what has drawn me into his work is his ability and willingness to avoid expectations. This creates a performance persona that seems to unfold in the moment, almost a purity of practice and delivery.”
Thayer now has his own company, Mise en Place Dance, started with fellow alumna Amy Cova and named after the cooking practice of gathering ingredients before you start assembling a dish. The two performed their first evening-length concert, Detroit City Conduit, last summer at the Russell Industrial Center, a run-down warehouse in Detroit now in use as an art space. The response was favorable and Mise en Place Dance has since been accepted into two fall dance festivals in New York.
“Thayer is a virtuosic dancer with a beautifully attuned instrument, who calibrates strength and grace with a range of textures and personae,” says Fogel. Looks to us like a career on the rise. —