This Iraq Veteran Turned Choreographer Is Making Provocative Dances About War
When Roman Baca returned home from active duty in Iraq in 2007, he found himself having a tough time transitioning to civilian life. "I remember a couple of instances where I was mean and angry and depressed," says Baca. "My wife sat me down and said, 'You are not the same guy I knew before.' " She suggested Baca return to his roots in dance. "She asked me, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?' " Ten years later, Baca seems to be well on his way to answering that question as a Fulbright Fellow in London, working to educate audiences about the realities of war through dance.
But before winning such a prestigious fellowship, Baca had to broker his transition back into dance. Earlier, he had trained at The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Connecticut and spent a few years as a freelance dancer before feeling compelled, like his grandfather had, to serve his country. "I walked into the recruiter's office and said, 'I want to help people who can't help themselves.' " Baca reveled in the rigor of the Marine Corps, which seemed like a perfect analog to classical ballet. "I wanted to explore other facets of who I was, and I didn't want to shirk the challenge of testing my mettle," says Baca. This was in 2001, shortly before 9/11. "After that happened, we knew there was going to be a response," remembers Baca. "Our unit was just waiting for its turn." In 2005, Baca and his unit were deployed to Fallujah.
Baca served as a machine gunner and fire team leader. And while his job was one of looking for insurgents and intelligence, Baca also ended up doing humanitarian work, bringing water and school supplies to those in need. The transition from violence to aid helped him meet his original desire to defend the vulnerable. In 2008, Baca's contract of enlistment was up and after some debate, he decided to return to civilian life.
Heeding his wife's advice, upon his return he reached out to his mentor Sharon Dante from The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory. He had dabbled in choreography before joining the Marines and had begun to write while overseas. Dante suggested it was only natural for Baca to now focus his writing and choreography on his experiences in Iraq. The exploration led Baca to form Exit12 Dance Company, a small troupe with a goal of inspiring conversations about the lasting effects of violence and conflict. Through Exit12, he began to get involved in art and healing for military veterans. Baca has since choreographed a military-themed Nutcracker and created an initiative with New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum to have Exit12 perform on the aircraft carrier's deck every Memorial Day.
Through his work with veteran advocacy group Dancing to Connect, Baca co-led a workshop for young people when he returned to Erbil, in northern Iraq. "They told their stories of what it is like to live through war, what they thought of America," he says. "The trip really solidified my desire to continue to work overseas and share cultures."
So when a theater in the UK reached out to him in 2016 about creating a new Rite of Spring—one that would explore the connections between the creation of this famous ballet and the outbreak of World War I, in commemoration of the war's centennial, as well as touch on today's veterans and current events—he knew immediately it was a project for the Fulbright program.
For the next two years, Baca will be living in London while he pursues his MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance as a Fulbright student. Meanwhile, he will be creating his new Rite as well as continuing to partner with arts organizations that help veterans. With inspiration from several versions of the ballet, from Nijinsky to Pina Bausch to Shen Wei, Baca seeks to make his own mark on the iconic piece. "One percent of our population serves in the military, and an even smaller number serves in war," explains Baca of one of the central questions motivating this new commission. "How do we take all of this remote and little understood experience and inspire the audience to positive action? I want to motivate them to do something."
- How One Former Marine Used Ballet To Spread Veterans' Stories ... ›
- Exit12 Dance Company ›
- What It's Like to Tell War Stories Through Dance | TIME ›
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.