Passion, Purpose and Telling War in New Ways with Roman Baca
Roman Baca is a Marine Iraq War Veteran and the Artistic Director of Exit12, a contemporary dance company committed to creating and performing works about the lasting effects of violence and conflict on communities, families, and individuals.
He's been featured on the Huffington Post, spoken at Tedx San Antonio, and was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, a program that aims to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.
What made you join the military?
I was a classical ballet dancer. I was dancing professionally, and I got to a point where dancing was fulfilling, but it wasn't taking me in a direction that I could see developing into a good career. Growing up, I had some challenges as I think a lot of people do. I didn't have a traditional mother-father scenario. I grew up like this introverted, very scared young man. But I did have some great role models growing up, and a lot of those role models were Marines. When I was looking to transition out of classical ballet, I looked at the Marines as helping be the person I wanted to be. I knew Marines were helpers and good individuals who had moral and values. I looked at the Marines as something that could help me deal with my fear.
What were you scared of?
That's a hard question to answer and it's a question I couldn't answer myself until I deployed to Fallujah. I remember one time I was younger around 21 years old, and I was living with my grandparents. My sister was dating this guy, and he wasn't very nice to her. One night, I got home from school and was sleeping. The guy got drunk and was banging on the door. I knew the right thing to do was to get out of that bed, tell my grandfather to go to bed and deal with the situation. But I was too afraid to get out of bed. I was petrified, and I can't tell you how many times this situation has duplicated in my life. I had this imagination or picture of the Marines that was going to turn me into this gung-ho, unafraid of the world person that was going to tackle challenges.
You were dancing before the Marines, but in a system like the military, you get paid to fall in line, do what you're told to do and have no sense of individuality. How did you reconnect with something creative like dancing after you were in something so regimented for years?
It wasn't entirely easy. In boot camp, I would practice ballet in my head during periods of monotony and boredom. There was this one time where my girlfriend at the time sent me a book of pictures. A couple of guys were looking over my shoulder when I was opening the package, and they thought it was the coolest thing to be a dancer. Another guy shunned it and ended up not talking to me after that. I kept it under wraps because I wanted to be judged in the Marine Corps by my performance and not my prior career.
It wasn't until Fallujah when I started sharing that I use to be a dancer. I missed doing creative things and having an outlet. Every time I would get time off in Fallujah, I would climb to the top of my building, sit on the roof and sketch and draw to exercise that creative muscle. I would talk to the interpreters about art and dance, and I asked one of them about Iraqi dance. He would bring me videos to help me experience the culture and dance. It helped start to share with my guys that I use to dance. I would test the waters by first saying I was in performances like Broadway or plays
As the conversation, with my guys developed, I had this idea creating a ballet about war with one of my buddies when I got back, and I had to tell him I was a classical dancer. He thought it was awesome and said: "yes, let's do it. Let's write down and do it when you get back."
It wasn't just finding ways to reconnect with the and artistic side again; it was about finding other people of the same vein who were supportive.
What was your transition like out of the military?
Coming out of the military, I had this vision of doing all these things you put on your bucket list when you don't have somebody controlling your schedule and telling you what to do.
I started checking off all the boxes on my list and after six months, my girlfriend now wife sat me down and said "I know you think you are doing ok but you're angry, depressed, anxious, and you're making people afraid of you. Going from being a kid who was scared to now being someone people were afraid of, I didn't like that. Having this rejection of living in a divorced family and having to prove myself again, I kept thinking that I knew how this situation was going to play out and she was going to leave. But she didn't. She ended up staying and encouraging me to change what was happening to me. One question she asked me was that if I could do anything and I didn't have to worry about money, what would it be? I threw a curveball at her and said I would start a dance company.
Do you find it was easier to dance before the military or dance now?
I think the experience of both times were different. Before I went to the Marine Corps, I was more suited for dancing. I had developed these muscles to lift people and turn my body in different ways. In the Marines, you're training different muscles and also tearing your body to pieces. When I got out of the Marines, my physique was different. I had gained more muscle and the lean body I had developed as a dancer was disappearing. Getting back into dance after the Marines, I wasn't as flexible, but I was a lot stronger. Some things were easier and some harder.
A lot of your performances are doing something unique such as using ballet to talk about the war. Some have viewed the stories of war in Hollywood as doing a disservice to the American public due to the simplistic storytelling about something so complex. How do you through your plays and efforts try to explain something so complex as the industry of war?
The reason we started approaching the military experience in the first place was when I was creating the art; there was a luminary in the art world who told me you have to find your voice and that one thing that is vital in your life that needs to be talked about. For me, it was the military experience.
It was 2007, and we were still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mainstream media was portraying the military and its personnel as a stereotypical bloodthirsty warrior. I felt it was important to talk about the people, the conflicts and altercations we had and painting them choreographically on stage. I need to give the audience an ambiguous look into war without this commentary of how they should field about it. I think dance has a beautiful way of painting a way visually to let the audience's imagination connect and run wild with how they feel about what they saw. Then they can either further explore themselves what war means to them.
When you do your performances, do you find yourself challenged to constantly talk about war from a different angle each time you perform?
With our audiences and the repertoire we built to communicate, I think our struggle has been committing to the experience of conflict. In our early days, we talked about the military experience and people experiencing conflict whether it's the Arab Spring uprisings or war. I look at it and ask We if the dancers and artists are getting value out of this. Maybe we have a larger brush than just painting the military experience. I think we do an excellent job telling conflict, but it's been challenging for us to committing to it. Every project we take on tends to reference the military at some point.
We recently did a project based on Homer's Odyssey that talks about the returning veteran. Some scholars point to the different monsters Achilles was faced with, and they think the Greeks were using those monsters as a way to describe the invisible wounds of war we know today. We started getting asked by schools to come out and perform the Odyssey, and we're tackling this. We're trying to show that the returning journey of a veteran coming home from the war in the Odyssey is the same as a veteran returning home from war. Most of our dancers were not in the military, and they commit to making sure they do the story justice.
Based on your journey, what's the one thing you would share with people when it comes to pursuing their passion and facing obstacles in their life?
Find your passion and turn it into a career. That's the one thing I think leads to success in life.