From bunker to ballet

Military veterans returning home from war often face lives of anxiety and loneliness, their experiences on the front line isolating them from the rest of society. One US soldier used dance to tell his story

In 2009, New York’s Exit12 Dance Company staged its first piece, Habibi Hhaloua – Arabic for ‘my beautiful, you have my eyes’ – about a US Marine on patrol in Iraq. While dancers performed on stage, embodying soldiers’ preoccupations with courage, death, and home, Marines patrolled the back of the theatre, instilling into the audience the fear and trepidation of conflict.

Exit12 was founded by dancer and US Marine, Roman Baca. ‘I was a classical ballet dancer in Connecticut,’ he says. ‘I wanted to serve, not only my country, but my community and other people. So in 2000 I joined the US Marine Corps and was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq as a machine gunner and fireteam leader.’

Baca was tasked with patrolling villages, hunting for insurgents in the dead of night, and delivering food, water and clothing to locals. He returned to the US in 2006, and tried to get on with normal day-to-day life, but couldn’t shake feelings of anxiety and depression.

‘My girlfriend sat me down and said, “things aren’t the same, you’re not the same person you were before the war”. She asked me if I could do anything in the world, what I would do.’ Baca responded that he would start a dance company, and reconnect with his artistic training. It was something he had discussed with his platoon in Iraq, holed up in a small desert bunker, dreaming up ideas for ballets.

‘I started creating very abstract choreography in 2007, but I felt that it wasn’t what I really wanted to say, or the mark I wanted to leave on the artistic world. So we started talking about the military experience, talking about the effect these wars had on families and loved ones, as well as people in the Middle East.’

Exit12 has grown into an arts organisation that champions stories coming out of conflict – mothers who have had sons deployed to Afghanistan, protestors of the Arab Spring, oppressed Iraqi women. The six-strong troupe has performed at venues across the US, including veterans’ arts festivals, the Walter Reed Military Medical Center, even on the deck of the USS Intrepid.

‘Art gives veterans this vehicle to communicate their experiences in an abstract way, where they’re not being sensationalist or overly shocking’

For Homecoming, Exit12 recorded real letters that were written to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from loved ones back home, and choreographed a piece set to the messages. The dancers also evoked what the letters didn’t say. ‘A lot of times I would get letters from friends and family, especially my mother, which were all so positive and motivating and inspirational,’ says Baca. ‘It made me think that everyone back home was ok, everyone was going on with their daily lives. But when I got home, people told me that my mother was having a really hard time with me being overseas. It was the first time I realised that. I wanted to communicate that to audiences.’

In the US a military veteran takes their own life almost every hour, according to data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year. Unemployment is high and mental illness wide-spread; for many, the task of reintegrating into society after war is insurmountable. Art offers a way to cope – in the same way that it undeniably helps those suffering from dementia or learning difficulties – through self-expression, working as a team, the simple joy of being creative. But for Baca, the idea of communication is crucial.

‘I’ve spent a lot of time researching the Vietnam War, and my grandfather served in the Korean War. They were all told – or they all believed – that they weren’t supposed to talk about the wars, that they weren’t supposed to talk about the things that happened or the things they did. Firstly because they were too difficult, and secondly because they thought the public and their loved ones wouldn’t understand.’

‘I think art gives veterans this vehicle to communicate their experiences in an abstract way where they’re not being sensationalist or overly shocking,’ Baca continues. ‘But it’s a palatable way to open up experiences and let audiences meet them halfway – to try and empathise with what our men in arms are called to do.’

Indeed, reintegration seems a more manageable task if those surrounding you have a more visceral understanding of what you’ve been through ‘over there’. Mutual understanding was the focus of Exit12’s Conflict(ed), presented as an abstract conversation between the US military and the Middle East.

‘The performance starts with a single dancer in an abaya, the traditional Iraqi garb,’ says Baca. ‘She is coming to terms with having to wear the covering, and then it transitions to an American military woman coming to terms with having to wear the uniform. It pits two military personnel and two women in abayas together in this kind of conflicted quartet. The performance culminates with the dancers just trying to communicate on a very basic level.’

‘One of the things that was really hard for us when we were overseas,’ adds Baca, ‘was learning how to deal with a population that we couldn’t speak the same language as, learning to follow our directives and orders but still be sensitive to the population. With Conflict(ed) I got to explain that. I was able to demonstrate to audiences the conflict that goes on in your head, of using too much force or not enough force, of trying to be empathetic to what’s going on but also trying to maintain control of the situation.’

‘A female veteran said our performance made her cry for the first time since she served in Baghdad’

Exit12 has developed a wider remit over the years, staging the stories of people whose lives have been affected by conflict and violence. ‘A young man approached us who wanted to choreograph something about the Arab Spring uprising,’ Baca says. ‘And last year I was introduced to an army mother who used to be a choreographer and dancer. She came to one of our rehearsals and pitched a piece. Her two sons were both in the army, both being deployed to Afghanistan. She wanted to choreograph a work about being a mom and watching your sons grow up, fall in love for the first time, and then go away to war.’ Sometimes, Silence premiered on Memorial Day this year, on the deck of the USS Intrepid.

For Baca and the artists involved in his organisation, dance has proved a powerful tool in dealing with the emotional and psychological distress of war. It has also touched Exit12’s audience. ‘We performed at a military arts convention last year,’ says Baca. ‘A female veteran said our performance made her cry for the first time since she served in Baghdad. We recently performed at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Maryland to a very warm reception. The American Dance Therapy Association commented that we are effectively doing dance therapy. When audiences watch dance, their neural receptors fire, so it’s very important for people in wheelchairs or people who are incapacitated to watch movement. It makes them feel like they’re still moving.’