Marine uses ballet to heal, share stories of war
NEW YORK CITY — If anyone understands the choreography of combat, it’s Roman Baca.
He has plucked grace from war’s chaos. It is at the core of both his art and his service to his country.
“As a dancer, you have to have that presence, so that even when you’re just standing there, the audience senses something amazing is about to happen,” says Baca, a 37-year-old Marine from Waterbury, Conn., who took his feelings about Iraq and turned them into ballet.
“As a Marine, we call that bearing. You want to exude a violence of action, so nobody will mess with you. It’s that puffing up of your chest, or whatever you want to call it.”
Others are calling it healing.
Two of Baca’s ballet pieces, “Homecoming” and “Habibi Hhaloua,” have earned praise from military and civilian audiences alike, and his artistic skills are leading him back to Iraq to help young Iraqis channel their emotions into an original dance.
“When you can use your gifts to make the world a better place, it brings a whole new meaning to dance,” says Baca’s wife, ballerina Lisa Fitzgerald, during a break in rehearsals with her husband at the Dance Art New York studio in midtown Manhattan.
Yet for the most part, Baca kept his life as a ballet dancer hidden from his fellow Marines. During boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., he didn’t tell his senior drill instructor until the day of his graduation.
“Oh, Baca, I knew there was something weird about you,” the man barked.
Growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., and Tacoma, Wash., Baca says his devotion to ballet saw him through family disputes, financial hardship and periods when he lived at friends’ houses. His father bought him his first pair of ballet shoes.
When he got to the University of New Mexico, Baca discovered that dance pieces about loss and brutality could cut to the heart of human experience.
“It said to me that this is a language that really speaks,” Baca explains. “Oh, my God, dance is powerful.”
Baca ended up in Connecticut thanks to the Nutmeg Conservatory of the Arts in Torrington. He studied and performed ballet there for two years after college, supporting himself by working at a bakery and grabbing the occasional construction job.
“So I’m looking at the rest of my life and I decide to make the obvious choice to join the United States Marine Corps Reserve,” he laughs. “I went from tights to camis.”
Baca credits the Marine ethos of challenging one’s self every day with making him a better dancer, oddly enough. Boot camp took him beyond all physical and mental limits he’d known before, and he excelled.
The war in Iraq took him to Fallujah in 2005. He served with TOW Platoon 25th Marines as a machine gunner and fire team leader for an anti-tank missile assault force.
He patrolled villages in a Humvee, looking for insurgents; he manned entrance and exit points at Camp Fallujah; he protected water pump stations and patrolled watch posts.
“The media, movies, books — not one of them comes close to the reality of it,” Baca says. “The reality is, it’s patrolling the desert, looking for ghosts. It’s going on missions and having a guy go into a bunker to check it out.
“The media doesn’t look at the guy who just wants to get the job done and go home, or the guy whose first thought every day is about how his daughter is doing in school,” he adds.
Although all the Marines in his unit made it out of Iraq safely in the spring of 2006, one of Baca’s comrades took his own life last year. Baca says his own experience in war zone left him with “a certain sense of ambiguity about actions.”
But he’s not ambiguous about ballet. He co-founded the Exit 12 Dance Company in 2007 and found purpose in focusing his choreography on issues of war and the plight of returning veterans. He’s also accepted a non-profit fellowship with The Mission Continues, working with New York’s Battery Dance Company to bring dance to veterans’ hospitals, schools — and soon a group of students in Iraq.
“I’m beyond excited about it. I’m inspired,” Baca says.
He recalls one audience in New York a few years ago that included members of his old platoon and other service men and veterans. Baca sheepishly approached one of the vets afterward. The man told him he’d served in Tikrit, and that the ballet expressed exactly what he went through there. Baca’s platoon mates said the same.
“It gave me the feeling I’m doing the right thing,” Baca says. “I have my issues, but I deal with them in my own ways.”