How One Former Marine Used Ballet To Spread Veterans' Stories Around The World

03/03/2015 11:58 am ET | Updated Mar 04, 2015


Patrolling the stage in "Habibi Hhaloua," 2009. Photo by A. Fink.

Roman Baca still recalls his first day of training, when a Marine recruiter arrived at his Connecticut house "at 0500" to usher him to boot camp. It was still dark that morning, he remembers, as the recruiter's car pulled out of the driveway, pointed in the direction of the Military Entrance Processing Station. The next thing Baca knew, he was getting off a bus and stepping onto yellow footprints at the Marine Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, snapping to attention as a drill instructor barked orders.

At that point, he thought he was leaving dance forever.

Baca had trained as a dancer -- ballet and jazz, to be specific. In 2000, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, and went on to serve in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005 and 2006. Now, after having immersed himself in two incredibly demanding vocations, he's taking on an even bigger challenge -- bringing together the worlds of ballet and battle with honesty, bravery and grace. Lots of grace.

Today Baca, 41, serves as the artistic director of Exit 12 Dance Company in New York. He founded Exit 12 in 2007, a year after coming home from Iraq. Exit 12 focuses on choreographing works that relay the experiences of veterans and their families, often in ways that language cannot express. One dance, "Conflict(ed)," tells the story of a mother waiting for her sons to come home from Afghanistan. Another piece is inspired by the places the mind wanders when on duty. In a 2013 review for The Washington Post, Sarah Kauffman described a piece called "Sometimes, Silence" as "straightforward, exquisitely simple and unmuddled with cliche or overwrought emotionalism," and noted that against all odds, the dance captured the attention of hundreds of middle and high school boys at the performance she attended.

To most of us, the connection between dance and the military isn't immediately obvious. Yet speaking to Baca, you start to see what the two disciplines have in common. Each one requires devotion, rigor and intensity. Each one challenges the spirit along with the body. Each one forces you to come to grips with your own mental and physical limits. In photographs of Baca in a war zone, he appears assertive and stern, with rigid posture and a furrowed brow. When he's on a stage, though, his features shift ever so slightly, his powerful body revealing its unexpected ability to cradle stories and communicate feelings.

Baca originally studied ballet at an arts conservatory in Connecticut. Following the rigorous training, he found himself juggling freelance dance gigs and odd jobs, a life that left something to be desired. "I think I just wanted a change," Baca explained in a phone conversation with The Huffington Post. And that change was joining the military. "I looked up to a lot of Marines in my life. I wanted to serve my country, do something completely different from ballet and test myself. I decided to join the Marine Corps in December of 2000."


Fallujah, Iraq, 2005. Photo by R. Baca.

Those who knew Baca reacted to his decision with everything from understanding to confusion to fear. "A couple of my friends were competing in the International Ballet Competition in New York City," he said, "and we were driving down there to visit them, and I remember falling asleep and waking up to a conversation they were having about me joining the Marine Corps. One of my friends was saying he was really scared, he didn't think it was my character. And another one of my friends stopped him and said, 'Yes it is. I think everything that Roman is is about service, and I think he is going to be OK.'"

For the most part, once Baca enlisted, he kept his identity as a dancer under wraps. There was, however, one incident during boot camp when Baca's old dance partner sent him some photos of the two of them dancing together. Three of Baca's fellow recruits sneaked a glance. Two of them thought the photos were "cool," Baca remembers. The third never spoke to him again.

"I attribute that to the misconceptions of male dancers," he said.


Fallujah, 2005. Photo by R. Baca.

Baca trained for deployment at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, but his unit was deactivated and sent home after six months. Finally, in 2005, he was sent to Fallujah. Baca didn't know much about the city at the time, but he quickly got an idea of how serious the situation was there.

"Fallujah at the time was an extremely dangerous place," Baca would later tell The Village Voice. "The base got mortared a lot. The very first patrol that we went on, we rolled up onto an area where a Humvee had been hit with an IED or a mortar or some sort of explosive, and we actually found a helmet. So what was supposed to be a normal, run-of-the-mill patrol turned into something that emphasized that we weren't in a safe place."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baca's time in Fallujah didn't include much dancing. Instead, Baca turned to sketching to express himself. "I would climb to the top of the building where we were staying early in the mornings just to sketch," he told HuffPost. "It was very surreal, with machine guns going off in the background and helicopters flying overhead, to just zone everything out and be entranced with the feeling of creating something artistic in a war zone."

He came back to Connecticut in 2006 and immediately felt pressure to begin checking off life goals -- to get the right job, the right house, the right partner. "I wanted to do all of the things that people were supposed to do when they got home from war," he said. "I wanted to do the normal life thing that everyone talks about."

But something wasn't right. While in Fallujah, Baca and his fellow Marines were trained to act with aggression and violence, in order to fend off anyone who might have hassled them, or worse. Once Baca got back to "normal life," that war zone persona was hard to shake. "It sounds so cliché, but even driving down the road was difficult," he said. "I remember driving and wanting to ram vehicles because that was the standard procedure in Iraq, if any got too close. And here I am, in the middle of a civilian highway with someone tailgating me, and I'm having to be like, 'OK, just pull off the road and take a breath. You'll be OK.'"

Baca's girlfriend (they are now married) noticed the changes in him. She sat him down to break the news. "You're not doing OK," she said. "You're anxious, you're depressed. People are afraid of you."

They discussed what to do next. Baca revealed that he'd always harbored a desire to choreograph, to start his own dance company. He never expected his girlfriend to respond how she did: "Let's do it."


Baca's first dance piece about the military experience, "Habibi Hhaloua," 2009. Photo by C.T. Dorman.

Together, they created a series of dance videos and sent them off to various choreography competitions. The rejections rolled in. Baca tried to remain positive, although he now refers to this initial stretch as a "horrible failure." Eventually, some advice from Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin, changed Baca's choreography forever. "The one thing he said that really caught me was, you have to find voice," Baca remembers. "You have to find that thing within you that is aching to come out, aching to be talked about, aching to be explored. And that's how you'll find your vision."

For Baca, "that thing" was the military.

"I felt like the works out there about the military experience were overt with people trying to inject meaning and inject all these sort of assumptions and political statements that I thought were misrepresentative of the actual experience," he told HuffPost. "And so I turned my choreographic lens to the military experience and tried to show what it was like in Iraq -- what it was like being so far from your family, in a dangerous place 24/7, and just trying to get people to feel that."

That's how Exit 12 Dance Company was born. The company aims to open people's eyes to the military experience, and to so much more besides: new art; new experiences; other cultures; pain and suffering. "We're trying to be a beacon of hope, so we can come together and create a better world," Baca said.


Baca dancing with his wife in "Habibi Hhaloua," 2009. Photo by C.T. Dorman.

Baca never intended simply to tell his own story. He wanted to present a multifaceted narrative, pieced together by a diverse selection of veterans and their families, each contributing individual details to a broader collage. Still, no matter how diverse the stories and experiences of the veterans Baca approached, there was one thing they all had in common.

"They all said the same thing -- that they couldn't talk about this stuff. Through dance we have the opportunity to show this experience in a way that is safe," he said. "In a way that can be hyperrealistic. In a way that can be metaphorical or symbolic. We can put this stuff in the world and we don't have to hold on to it."

The company's first piece, staged in a converted barn in Woodstock, New York, was called "Habibi Hhaloua" -- an Arabic expression that translates as "my love is beautiful," and that Baca had been taught to mean "you have my eyes" or "when I look at you, all I see is you," colloquial alternatives for "I love you." The piece follows a Marine on patrol in Iraq as his mind begins to wander, leading him to his love back home. His fantasy eventually causes him to get injured. Another work, "Homecoming," takes inspiration from various letters sent back and forth between military personnel and their families, as well as the messages, fears and hopes that go unsaid.

It wasn't long before Baca's work expressing the military experience through dance led him back to where it all began -- Iraq. In 2012, he teamed up with Mission Continues, a nonprofit for veterans, and an organization called Battery Dance Company. Battery Dance Company is known for its program Dancing to Connect, which brings together people from conflicting cultural groups to work as unlikely dance partners, bridging divides through artistic creation.

In northern Iraq, Baca, along with Battery Dance Company's Robin Cantrell, worked with 15 predominately Kurdish students from Erbil and 15 predominately Arab students from Kirkuk, all of them between 16 and 20 years old, at a time when fierce Arab-Kurdish conflicts were brewing.

"I had a friend come to me and he said 'I have a ton of gear if you need it. I have flak jacket, flares, radios. What do you need?'" Baca remembers. "And I said 'Dude, I'm going back with a bag of music, my dance shoes, my camera and that's it.' If we get into trouble, we get into trouble, but hopefully the fact that we're going there to do a good thing will prevail."

It did. According to Baca, the students got to rehearsals early and stayed late. After 10 days, they had created a 10-minute dance piece that explored their collective hope for a safer world. Sprinkled in were reflections on what it's like to live in Iraq today, how the students thought Americans perceived them and what they thought of America in return. They performed the piece at a theater filled with 240 members of their community.


"I have to tell you, having people who live there come and give you flowers at the end of a performance, and to be able to tell them you came to protect their country with a weapon and now you're back with art," Baca said, "there is no better feeling."

Baca remounted the work in the U.S. and has been performing it throughout New York -- everywhere from the 92nd Street Y to the United Nations -- and around the country. That experience, he said, has been just as fulfilling as the original choreography process. By bringing artistic expression to the U.S. from a place that often feels so far away, he's hoping to pique the inner humanity that resides in us all, waiting for a way to communicate.

"These are dances we can bring back in order to educate people," he said. "I think we get mixed up with all these words that are supposed to mean things about people over there. And we forget that they are people, and they are people that are scared. Scared of ISIS, scared of this violence."

In April, Baca and Exit 12 are slated to perform "Honoring the Ghosts," a piece addressing the trauma of war and the healing powers of art, at Stanford University in California. One month later, the company will hold a performance and workshop at the Military Experience & the Arts 2015 Symposium in Lawton, Oklahoma. Both performances will feature "Conflict(ed)" and "Sometimes, Silence," as well as the works "Aggressed/This Is War" and "Yarjuun."

And he hopes to return to Iraq as soon as possible. "We could go back with arms or we could go back with guns," said Baca. "But at the end of the day, how many young people are there in these refugee camps that need to be reminded that there is good in the world? That there is hope for a better future?"

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