Iraq War Vet Brings Contemporary Dance Company to JSC
September 23, 2016
Former Marine Roman Baca, co-founder of Exit12 Dance Company, will perform with his troupe 8-10 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Dibden Center for the Arts at Johnson State College.
The performance by Exit12, based in New York City and founded in 2007, is free and open to the public.
Baca had a dance career before he deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005 and 2006. He is now artistic director of Exit12.
For Exit12, Baca has choreographed several works about the military and their families. He was a panelist for a presentation on art and healing in the military at the U.S. Senate and is an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Leadership Fellow.
Baca has worked in Erbil, Iraq, and New York and Connecticut public schools to teach students how to express themselves through choreography. His work has been recognized by major print and broadcast media outlets.
Roman Baca: Finding Solace in Dance after War
by Jess Clarke
One way Roman Baca dealt with his feelings after he finished a tour of duty while a Marine in Iraq was by performing ballet as he adjusted to civilian life.
“I like the ability to express myself through music and movement,” he says. “It has helped me work through a lot.”
Through performances and workshops, all Exit12 choreography is conflict-related. Some pieces are based on wars and the experiences of veterans and their families. Other dances reflect veterans’ perspectives on various topics. The troupe aims to help veterans heal through art and to increase understanding between vets and civilians.
The veteran’s odyssey in Iraq inspired Exit12’s piece “Odyssey,” which the company will perform for the first time publicly at JSC. The dance presents a new take on Homer’s “Odyssey.”
“We want to paint this picture of the warrior returning home in a more modern urban setting,” says Baca, 42, who co-founded Exit12 in 2007. All Exit12 dancers have a connection to veterans, including Baca’s wife. The other two founders are dancers married to vets.
“My vision for the company is to continue to work with people affected by conflict, including veterans, military families, child soldiers and war refugees. I see Exit12’s work only beginning,” Baca says.
Exit12, under the nonprofit umbrella of a larger organization, is the only dance company in the country with such a focus, he notes. As a teenager, Baca was drawn to jazz, hip-hop and ultimately ballet. “I enjoyed the intellectual pursuit ballet offered, a training methodology and pedagogy I could get behind and apply my intellect to,” he says.
He started dancing professionally in the late 1990s after studying ballet at the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Connecticut.
As a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, Baca interrupted his dance career to deploy to Iraq, transitioning from performing in classic ballets to riding in a Humvee and searching villages for insurgents as part of a machine gunner platoon.
“We were trying to keep the villages safe but also trying to find the bad guys,” he says. “We would go out and exhibit this very aggressive and very violent posture when we were on patrol. We found out it wasn’t helping us.”
His platoon eventually refocused its mission with a more humanitarian approach, taking school supplies to children, giving water to locals and organizing a neighborhood-watch type of program. “We had a feeling of actually making headway and helping people, which is why I joined the Marines,” says Baca, who was in the Reserve from 2000 to 2008.
There were several reasons for Baca’s leap from ballet to the Marines, including wanting to serve his country, inspired by relatives and mentors who were veterans. And he was ready for a change. “The art world is difficult. I felt the weight of having to create a career in art weighing on me. I needed a transition,” he says.
The transition from dance to war may have been less complicated than the adjustment to civilian life when Baca returned from Iraq in 2006. “I experienced all the things my fellow veterans are experiencing, the challenge of making sense of life after war. I experienced a lot of the hurt and pain that my fellow veterans have felt,” says Baca, who is involved with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization.
“You’re called upon to make an impact in another country. And you come back to this world that at times can seem meaningless with the day-to-day monotony,” he says. “You’re struggling to make a difference, find a purpose.”
Exit12 helps veterans deal with war’s trauma through the healing power of movement. “Dance specifically has this wonderful merging of the physical, the emotional and the creative. People are employing so many parts of their body and mind,” Baca says. “We’re bridging these traumatically closed areas of the brain and recreating connections neurologically through art.”
Dance has helped Baca deal with his own Iraq experiences, too. After he returned home, he was disturbed by memories of what he calls “a violent exchange. It was something that kind of haunted me and needed more investigation. We made it part of one of our dance pieces and put it on stage. Through the characterization of the military and the Iraqi sides, we were able to investigate the scene,” he says. “It was healing, in a way, that we got to dissect this experience and come to a more balanced perspective.”
Baca, who was inducted in 2015 into the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame, has worked as a teaching artist in Erbil, Iraq, and New York City public schools. He helps kids express themselves through choreography and other nonverbal communication.
Most rewarding to him are what he calls “the aha moments.” A class of ninth graders in New York watched some Exit12 dance pieces about conflict to connect veterans’ experiences to a book they had read. Baca asked the kids if they think war will ever end. Some students said “Yes,” and some said “No,” but they listened to differing opinions respectfully.
That’s how war will end, Baca told them, when people can act that way with each other.