Marine choreographs performances out of war experiences

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a year-long series of stories about Iraq War veteran Roman Baca, whose personal journey has taken him from New Mexico to Connecticut and now New York City.

NEW YORK CITY — Seven years removed from a bunker in Fallujah, Roman Baca’s worlds collided the other night in a tiny, avant garde theater in Queens.

It was live streamed, no less.

Exit 12, the ballet troop Baca founded with his wife, Lisa Fitzgerald, was performing dances he’d created out of his war experiences in Iraq; one of the Marines who served with him, Joseph D’Amico of Hamden, Conn., sat in the third row; the livestream audience included Iraqi kids Baca taught last year on a goodwill mission to Erbil. Also watching was Baca’s mom, in New Mexico.

It was like a digital version of “This Is Your Life.”

“Honestly, I don’t think I could do this without incorporating all the other elements,” said Baca, who sat off to the side of the small stage. “This is bigger than just me and my story.”

Maybe so, but there’s little doubt this has been a whirlwind year for the ballet-dancing Marine.

Baca, 38, has been featured everywhere from CNN and the Wall Street Journal to the cover of the Village Voice. He took a full-time job with a veterans’ group called The Mission Continues, connecting him to veterans doing service projects across the country. He also returned to Iraq to teach dance, performed aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier and conducted workshops at the U.S. military academy at West Point.

“I feel like my life has purpose,” Baca said, comparing the past year to when he first got home from Iraq. “I feel more focused and have more of a direction. It’s funny. When you create something and go in a direction that scares you, the scarier it is, the more you know you’re going in the right direction.”

Not bad for a guy who used to have thoughts of ramming into other cars during traffic jams.

“I wanted to keep this work honest and true to form, so that people couldn’t say we were taking advantage of the veterans’ space, or that we were capitalizing on all of this veteran buzz that has been going on,” Baca said.

The centerpiece of this night in Queens, as it is at many of Exit 12’s shows, was a dance called “Homecoming.” It describes the reunion of American soldiers with their families, accompanied by a sound track of actual letters written by military families.

Another part of the show featured a dance inspired by the Iraqi youth Baca met last year. It was filled with quick, acrobatic movements, as opposed to the flowing, timeless pacing of “Homecoming.”

In the audience, D’Amico watched intently. Not a dancer himself, he was persuaded several years ago to take part in one of Baca’s performances, dressed in military garb.

D’Amico said he’s proud that Baca has pursued his dreams as an artist  something he’d confided to D’Amico years ago in Iraq.

“We were each other’s right hand, through a lot of it,” D’Amico said of their time in the military. “I didn’t spend any more time with anybody other than Roman. He was my … he was the guy.”

These days, he’s a guy on a mission.

In April, Baca and Exit 12 will perform at West Point again and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, he continues to talk with politicians in Connecticut and New York about putting together a cultural mission in Iraq.

A new dance piece is also in the works. This one, written by Angela Scimonelli, is called “Sometimes, Silence.” It’s about a mother who watches her two sons grow up, join the Army and go off to war in Afghanistan.

“It will have its New York debut on the Intrepid on Memorial Day weekend,” Baca said.

By that time, even more U.S. troops will have returned from the Middle East. They’ll join their fellow veterans in an often difficult transition into civilian life.

Baca said he plans to chronicle their journey and promote their interests for years to come, whether it’s a popular topic or not.

“I think the country is tired of these operations that have been going on and they’re weary of seeing veterans in the news every day,” he said. “We know there’s an expiration date on what we do. We also talk about how we cannot pay attention to that. We need to keep pushing our message.”

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  • Scott

    I would love to get in touch with this amazing man. I have a project called Real Men Lift Women AKA realmenliftwomen.com. We promote men in the Dance community, and help get boys and men dancing through tuition assistance. He is the perfect role model for this project. If anyone can get me his email address, and send it my way- scott@realmenliftwomen.com, that would be amazing. Cheers, Scott