A Dancer's Tour of Duty

Iraq changed Marine Sergeant Roman Baca — ballet brought him back

When my girlfriend sat me down, instead of saying, "It's over," she said, "Let's figure out what we can do to fix this. If you could do anything in the world, and you didn't have to worry about money or time, what would you do?" I told her I'd start a dance company. And so we did.

On a very basic level, I had walked away from the arts, and figured that I needed to live a corporate life, a "normal" life. So this was recognizing that art could still be a part of life. We started working on choreography. Some of it was autobiographical, about a dancer who became a Marine and went to Iraq, and some of it was more about what it meant to serve in a war. It gave us the opportunity to bring the war into places where nobody wanted to talk about it and nobody wanted to think about it. And so it became more than just dancing.

Our first work was a piece called Habibi Hhaloua, which is an Arabic phrase that I learned as meaning you have my eyes, or when I look at you, all I see is you. The Iraqi people are very passionate people, and they have ways of saying things that we compartmentalize into "I love you."

VETERAN OF THE STAGE: Roman Baca in Manhattan, February, 2013.
Sam Zide
VETERAN OF THE STAGE: Roman Baca in Manhattan, February, 2013.
DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Roman Baca teaching an Exit12 Company class 
in February, 2013, at DANY Studios in Manhattan.
Kelly Schott
DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Roman Baca teaching an Exit12 Company class in February, 2013, at DANY Studios in Manhattan.

The piece was about a Marine on patrol in Iraq. And during this patrol, he does what we all do in the midst of monotony—our mind wanders, and we create a world within a world. And so he creates these characters that represent everything tying him back to where he's from—life and courage and home and love. And the love character becomes real to him, and they dance a duet together. And because he gets pulled out of that very alert state, he gets injured, and his comrade has to take him to the medevac.

When we were in Fallujah, there was a Syrian sniper that was picking off Marines left and right. He was brilliant. He would get them right in the neck, because he knew that it would get stopped by the helmet, and it would get stopped by the ceramic plates in the flak jacket, so he knew exactly where to aim. In Habibi Hhaloua, the Marine who is injured in the dance gets hit by that sniper.

Next I did a piece about the war's effect on families. We recorded letters—letters that my sister had written to me, letters from my girlfriend, letters I had written back home. Whenever I talked to my mom when I was in Iraq, she would always be, "Things here are just great. How are you?" I had this image in my head that my mother was a rock. And when I got back and started talking to people, they all said the same thing: "Your mother was a basket case while you were gone. You couldn't talk to her about it, because she'd lose her mind." And so we created a ballet called Homecoming. The letters are read, and the dancing is everything the letters don't say—the loss, the longing.

We also created another work, called Conflicted, about the relationship between the American military and the Iraqi people. And next month we're starting a piece that's going to be choreographed by the mother of two Army soldiers who are deployed to Afghanistan. She wanted to do a piece about being a mother waiting for her only sons to come home from the war.

Two Marines that I knew took their own lives. One was a Marine I served with. Another was a Marine I used as a template on how to live after the Marines. He was a volunteer at The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that gives fellowships to post-9/11 veterans to serve their communities. He did his fellowship responding to disaster areas. And I guess he decided that life was a little too difficult. That rocked my world.

Then I applied for a fellowship with The Mission Continues myself. I was awarded a fellowship last year to work with a dance company here in New York called Battery Dance. [Baca moved to New York City in 2011.] They were already doing overseas work with dance, and we developed a program to bring workshops to Iraq.

And so I went back to Iraq last April.

I didn't get to take anything with me—no flak jacket, no helmet, nothing. I had my dance clothes and a 95-pound female dancer from New York City who went with me. We get in the car to go to JFK and she turns to me and she says, "I'm scared. I've been to Africa and Cambodia to do this program, and when I tell people where I'm going they're always like, 'Great! Do great work!' But when I told people I'm going to Iraq, they were like, 'Be careful.'"

So I tried to calm her by pulling the Marine card and saying, "I'm a Marine and nothing's gonna happen to you." But when the plane left Istanbul, we were the only Americans on the plane, the only people who spoke English. When we landed in Arbil, we had to get from the plane to the parking lot to catch our bus. We were the first ones on the bus, and I was like, "This is great, the bus is gonna leave, we're gonna be fine." But the bus didn't leave, and we sat there while more and more people got on—and they were all military-age males. And suddenly the Marine Corps training is kicking in, and I'm putting myself in a corner, and making sure I have eyes everywhere.

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