School of Music, Theatre and Dance

A Life in Dance: Thayer Jonutz

Whether on stage or behind the scenes, OU professor finds inspiration everywhere

icon of a calendarMarch 10, 2022

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A Life in Dance: Thayer Jonutz
Thayer Jonutz
Thayer Jonutz, associate professor of dance at Oakland University and director of the OU Repertory Dance Company.

For Thayer Jonutz, associate professor of dance at Oakland University and director of the OU Repertory Dance Company, inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places.

“During the (pandemic) shutdown, I had all this time on my hands that I normally wouldn’t have, and I discovered that my roof was leaking,” Jonutz said. “I grew up in a roofing construction family, so I couldn’t in good conscience call a roofing company to fix it for me, I needed to do it myself.

“I had my three older kids help me out, and in the process of fixing the roof, I ended up telling them all these stories from my childhood, about my experiences in my roofing family, and all these different kinds of adventures that happened as a result of growing up in that world,” he added. “I thought ‘wow, this needs to become some sort of dance piece.’ But I wanted to do it in a different way than I had done before. I wanted to create something that could tell my story, almost like a memoir, but one that would utilize many different mediums of expression.”

And with that, the idea for “Hammer and Nail” was born. A multi-disciplined performance merging dance, theatre, surround sound music composition, creative writing and set design, “Hammer and Nail” tells the story of Jonutz’s experience during the shutdown, and all that he lost and how he has chosen to rebuild his identity.

“I hope to inspire and validate other people's processes that they've experienced through the pandemic,” Jonutz said. “When they hear my story, I hope it resonates with their own story and they can go ‘oh, I thought maybe I was alone in this redefining kind of time, but I'm not.’ That's kind of the overarching goal and mission of ‘Hammer and Nail.’”

The invitation-only performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on April 15 in Varner Studio Theatre.

“This premiere is the first phase of this work that will continue to grow over the next couple of years,” Jonutz said. “I wanted to break out of this rhythm that I think is so embedded into the dance world that we need to create a piece, perform it one weekend and then leave it and move on to the next project. ‘Hammer and Nail’ is going to continue to grow and accumulate sections and themes over the next couple of years. This is just the beginning.”

The process of a creating “Hammer and Nail” was a collaborative one.

“I began by reaching out to Kathleen Pfeiffer (a professor of English and Creative Writing at OU),” Jonutz said. “My vision was I could tell her my stories, and she could turn it into a script of some sort that I could utilize in my performance. We did that, and she created a wonderful script.”

For advice on how to bring the words on those pages to life through vocalization, Jonutz turned to Lynnae Lehfeldt, association professor of voice and movement for the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

“I've seen her work with my dance students before and love her process,” he said. “She is amazing at coaching vocalization with non-theatre people. We met a couple of times and she kind of coached me on how to speak and how to use a little bit more of a dynamic range when I'm storytelling.”

For help on creating a 3D sound experience during the performance, Jonutz reached out to John Anderson, a composer that he’d worked with for many years.

“I want my voice and the music and the rhythms to kind of hit people's ears from different angles, so we're going to be setting up speakers in different positions in whatever performance space that we're in so that the audience can get to experience a true surround sound,” he said. “The idea of it is really exciting for me.”

Jonutz also reached out to one of his former students, dance alum Ernesto Duran-Gutierrez, for tips on creating a unique movement style.

“I've been at this for a couple of decades, and as a choreographer there are just inevitably certain tendencies that you end up, unconsciously sometimes, falling back on,” Jonutz said. “One of my goals was to disrupt that and to intentionally ask someone like Ernesto to teach me a minute of his style of movement so that I could insert it into the project.

“That led to a whole section of movement that I created that was inspired by what Ernesto taught me,” he added. “That kind of took me into a different direction as a choreographer as well, so that was really exciting to have happen.”

In addition to his solo performance in “Hammer and Nail,” Jonutz will direct the OU Repertory Dance Company as they perform “Habitus” at 8 p.m. on March 25-26 in the Engineering Building. The performance will mark the first time the OU Repertory Dance Company has performed inside the building since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Originally, the idea of this annual event was to offer the students an opportunity to perform in a different space other than a traditional concert dance space,” Jonutz said. “I’ve always loved the Engineering Building. Every time I went over there I was like, ‘wow, this is so cool.’ The windows are great, and there's this awesome staircase that leads up to a second level where the audience can stand and watch from like a bird's eye view and get a get a different perspective. We also set up a handful of chairs on the lower level underneath the staircase, so the audience is encouraged to migrate and watch from different spots during the event.”

Featuring solos, duets and ensemble works, “Habitus” examines the personalities and quirks that each dancer brings to the OU Repertory Dance Company.

“The process started with me interviewing the dancers and asking them questions,” Jonutz said. “I wanted to dig into their personalities and find out what makes them tick. I wanted to know who are they beyond what I had been exposed to in a dance class setting. I just kept digging deeper until something unique came up, and I was like, ‘okay, that's, that's what we're going to start with.’

“We now have four solos and a duet that are completely different from one another based off of some facet of the personality of each one of the dancers, and they all have completely different music that that accompanies the dance,” he added. “It was really cool, really fun process.”

Admission to “Habitus” is free, but you must RSVP by sending an email to stating which evening you would like to attend, and how many people are in your group.

To learn more about these and other upcoming performances, visit

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