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Battle To Ballet: Ex-Marine Roman Baca Choreographs A Powerful Message
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Battle To Ballet: Ex-Marine Roman Baca Choreographs A Powerful Message

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Updated: 9 January 2017
U.S. Marine turned ballet dancer Roman Baca dons his camouflage and combat boots once more, but this time he enters stage right. His mission is to produce ballet that can change the world; his choreography broaching all-too-real issues. From helping fellow veterans deal with post-war life to teaching Iraqi youths to communicate their hopes and experiences through movement, we look at Roman Baca’s incredible campaign to combine the arts and soldiery for the greater good.

Roman Baca is a classically-trained ballet and jazz dancer. However, the desire to serve his country led him to enlist as a U.S. Marine in December 2000, bringing him to Fallujah, Iraq between 2005 and 2006 as a fire-team leader and machine-gunner. Baca merges these two contrasting yet equally demanding vocations, resulting in a beautiful fusion of ballet and battle. These two seemly unconnected paths both require high levels of rigor, intensity and devotion, pushing every participant to the peak of their mental and physical capabilities.

Baca managed to keep his identity as a ballet dancer secret while serving his country until, he recalls, three of his fellow recruits discovered old photographs of his performances, causing one to cease communication with Baca altogether. After his service, Baca found that his war-zone persona was hard to shake; anxious and depressed, people grew to fear him. In an effort to rediscover himself, Baca embraced the desire to own his own dance company – a dream that subsequently became his mission.

Baca’s initial attempts to gain support for this endeavor failed as he had yet to find his ‘voice’ on stage. However, he was greatly touched by his experiences in Iraq; reflecting upon learned narratives of loss, suffering and hope, Baca found his communicative outlet. He went on to choreograph several poignant productions, such as ‘Conflict’, which portrays a mother awaiting her son’s return home from Afghanistan, and ‘Homecoming’, inspired by the letters sent between Marines and their families as well as the underlying fears that often go unwritten. His psychologically complex yet easy-to-follow ballets cleverly capture the attention of all audience members, conveying the powerful experience of those affected by war in a way that transcends language alone.

Photos from his service in Iraq portray Baca as stern and assertive. On stage, he’s poised with an ethereal grace. At 41, Baca is now the artistic director of New York-based Exit 12 Dance Company. Exit 12 aims to open people’s eyes to the military experience and strives to educate audiences about the lived experience of veterans and their loved ones who suffer in silence through the medium of dance.

Exit 12 Dance Company has teamed up with The Mission Continues to create ‘Dancing to Connect’ in 2012 in Iraq. This innovative business successfully brings people from conflicting cultural groups together to collaborate as unlikely dance partners, bridging their political divisions through artistic creation. The project has incorporated the attendance of 15 Kurdish students from Erbil and 15 Arab students from Kirkuk. Together, they created a ten-minute dance piece that explores their collective hope for a safer world. By reminding refugees that there is good in the world, they can hope for a better future.

As well as choreographing several major works focusing on soldiers and their families, Baca has also given lectures about his own experiences and has written two short films: ‘A Marine’s Guide to Fishing’ and ‘War Dancer’. He has traveled to work in Erbil, Iraq and New York City public schools to teach young adults how to express their experience through choreography and non-verbal expression. Baca now has a full-time job with The Mission Continues, which currently strives to aid post-9/11 veterans find their way after combat. His priorities are defined by his desire to help veterans realize their potential in the civilian world and show them the impact they can make on their communities.