Roman Baca: 2014 AHN Awardee

"I think the most vital part of art is the possibility that is communicated. All art gives the artist the opportunity to translate a vision of what we are capable of and what we can aspire to.  The power of our work is taking our participants and audience through that journey: what happened to us, how it affected us and how we can move up and forward." –Roman Baca

Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2014 AHN Awards to Roman Baca, a professional dancer, former US Marine and co-founder and artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company. As a marine, he was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq from 2005-2006. In 2007, upon his return, he co-founded Exit12, a contemporary dance company committed to creating and performing works that inspire conversations about worldly differences and the lasting effects of violence and conflict on communities, families and individuals.

Exit12 supports and advances the notion that art heals and is devoted to serving those who have been touched by conflict by expressing their stories. As a teaching artist, Roman has worked in Erbil, Iraq and in New York City public schools teaching young adults how to express their experience through choreography and non-verbal expression. He has also conducted veteran/civilian movement workshops that provide tools to aid veterans in the workplace and to bridge the civilian-veteran divide.  

To learn more about Roman Baca and his outstanding work, please visit the Exit 12 web site. Also be sure to watch this inspiring video in which Roman shares the very moving story of his journey from dancer to marine to blending both worlds in Exit12 in order to generate healing.



Below is  an interview with Roman Baca by Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson from June 2014:

Mary Daniel Hobson: I was so moved by your personal story of going from ballet to the military and then turning to dance to heal PTSD and help others with conflict resolution. Can you share some of that story here?


Roman Baca: I’m a military veteran/artist. I served as a US Marine in Fallujah during the Iraq war from 2005 to 2006. And before that I was a classical ballet dancer. So when I got back from Iraq, I had some trouble getting back to civilian life, getting back to the swing of things. And so my girlfriend at the time suggested that I reconnect with art in order to reconnect with the people around me.


We started a dance company, Exit12, and its vision developed to communicate the military experience. After doing that for five years, two of my Marine buddies took their own lives. I knew I had to do more good, and help others. I was awarded a fellowship with The Mission Continues and Battery Dance Company to do a workshop in Iraq with Iraqi youth. We also did three workshops in New York City public schools. And we developed a workshop to work with veterans, because I figured that if movement could help me, it could help others.


Mary Daniel: Why do you believe dance and movement can be such powerful catalysts for healing and positive change?


Roman: The art of movement is a way of expressing the real, the absurd and the imaginary in a way that’s tangible and physical, and so we’re not just saying it, we’re not just writing it on paper...we’re actually moving these experiences and getting them out of our bodies and away from us. We have the option to assign meaning or leave it up to interpretation, but I think the most vital part of art is the possibility that is communicated. All art gives the artist the opportunity to translate a vision of what we are capable of and what we can aspire to. The power of our work is taking our participants and audience through that journey: what happened to us, how it affected us and how we can move up and forward.  


Mary Daniel: Do you find that dance and movement are particularly powerful in working with former military? And if so, why?


Roman: A couple of things. When I talk to older veterans, veterans that have served in Vietnam or the Korean War or World War II, they all say the same things: it’s difficult to talk about their experiences. That led me to believe that these experiences stay bottled up inside of us and part of the problem is that we need to release them. So our workshops allow a safe space for the veterans to experiment with those experiences, to release them in a way that is palatable and that is easy for other people to experience, and then, we just let them go - these experience disappeared, and those experiences disappeared. And this format offers them a way to communicate those experiences, in a way that’s more tolerable because they don’t have to be literal. They can communicate in any way that means something to them, and then they can just let it go. The possibility lies within this work that if we do this enough, those traumatic experiences will diminish or they’ll be more tolerable as life goes on.


One of the veterans we worked with said:  “Soldiers are trained to kill. The movements we are given are movements to kill -- whether it’s with a bayonet or with a rifle itself or hand-to-hand combat. It’s all about killing. And it’s about response to commands and response to circumstances, not about feelings, and there’s really no room for feelings. There’s a lot of feeling in [dance]. There’s a gentleness to it that can be a little unnerving. It’s about contact with other people in a nonviolent way with no intent to harm. It’s very different....”


Mary Daniel: Exit12 has created several war-related dance works. Can you talk about the intention behind these and the effect on the audience?


Roman: We have a full repertory of pieces we perform, that were created communicating the military experience, the experience of those innocents connected to the wars and the possibility of moving away from violence into a more tolerable world. We’ve performed it at Walter Reed Military Medical Center, West Point Military Academy and on the deck of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York Harbor. What these works allow us to show is the veteran’s perspective in word, in music and in movement. So the audience can experience, in a very tangible way, what it is to be that veteran and live with those memories, with those experiences, and with coming home and trying to reintegrate. Audience reaction has been extremely supportive.


Mary Daniel: Please talk about the dance workshops you have done in Iraq. How did you connect with the participants? And what has been the impact of these workshops?


Roman: The students ranged in age from 17 to 21 years old. Most of them could be labeled as MAM’s, or Military Aged Males. The first day, a few of their faces held the stern looks that resembled the pictures on the intelligence bulletins we posted in our COC in Fallujah. As we delved into the curriculum, and started moving, talking and creating, we were surprised. The students were dedicated, hard-working, creative and kind. They rose to the challenge and created a dance work that talked about their life, hopes, fears, dreams, obstacles and the desire for a better Iraq.


Working with the students, they taught us just as much as we taught them. I wanted to bring them hope...instead we discovered hope. I wanted to bring them understanding... instead we developed mutual understanding. They taught me some Kurdish and Arabic. My favorite word has to be hewa, hope. It is halou or jwuan, beautiful.


The final performance followed a locally produced play about the Kurdish Civil War. During the performance, I gave a speech that was translated into Kurdish and Arabic. I told the audience about my service, my mission of creating a cultural bridge and the triumph of the students. Representatives from the US Consulate in Erbil, people from the local communities and dignitaries from Erbil and Kirkuk filled the audience. At the end, a few more things happened that didn’t happen in Fallujah: women smiled, children gave me flowers and Iraqi people said – “Welcome to Iraq.” I learned that Cultural Diplomacy isn’t about dictating and lecturing, rather it is about the mutual search for knowledge and understanding.


Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work with Exit12 right now? What are your dreams for Exit12 moving forward?


Roman: We are touring for most of the 2014-2015 season at some venues that we have performed at before and traveling to new venues. On January 30, 2015 we are going to be part of a program at the storied 92nd Street Y in New York City called Shell Shock: Dance Serves Veterans War.  In the spring of 2015, we are headed to Stamford University to workshop and perform.


I personally dream of traveling back to Iraq again, to work with more students and bridge cultures with art.  I also would like to take a squad of military veteran/artists back to Iraq to do the same in a bigger way.


Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for someone else who would like use their creativity to help heal themselves or others?


Roman: Patience, vision and hope. Art is about creating connections and vision. Find a way to communicate your vision to others, but don’t be constrained by reality, experiences or shock-value. If possibility and hope are not intertwined with your creation, it doesn’t leave you and the audience with anywhere to go.


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