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  • Writer's pictureRoberto Nieves

Spotlight: Exit 12 - A Dance Company Founded by Marines to Tell the Stories of Veterans

By Roberto Nieves

Veterans and the art of dancing may seem like two entirely different worlds, but dancing, like all arts, tells a human story. After U.S Marine Roman Baca returned from two tours in Fallujah during the Iraq War, the combat veteran was stricken with bouts of anger and depression. Faced with such obstacles, he turns to an unlikely passion, and through it, manages to quell his demons, one movement at a time. Roman is the focus of a documentary from Mohammad Gorjestani, the appropriately-named Exit 12. The documentary is named after Roman's Dance Company of the same name, a company that has been essential to helping Roman, and many other veterans, battle their inner conflicts.

Exit 12 was uploaded to the Youtube Channel Short of the Week in August, which curates a variety of short films and animations through various subjects, from LGBTQ+ issues to science fiction. Exit 12 details the unconventional and pioneering journey of Roman Baca and his pursuits in returning to the art of dance, which he was passionate about before deploying to Iraq. Facing nightmares from the horror of war, Roman is given a moment to pursue anything, and so, he chooses to dance. Unlike other dance companies, Exit 12 is not just a dance company but an example of breaking barriers in Veteran Arts.

The documentary tells the stories of veterans, and their families, through quiet dance and ballet. Brisk movements pierce the air with somber eloquence, yet through the silence, there is a loud meaning that whirls its tale without uttering a word. Every action is struck with military precision and accuracy and a kind of gentleness that eases an audience into greatly understanding the feeling being conveyed. Through these movements and settings, the tales of humans and conflict can be too. Stories of anxiety, hopelessness, discovery, and newfound strength are spread throughout the story.

A remarkable observation in Exit 12 is the gravitation of other veterans, drawn to the performance and the sheer determination of Roman opening a dance company in one of the most competitive cities in the world, New York City. Throughout Exit 12, veterans as far back as the Vietnam War are drawn to assist and participate, sharing their stories and their struggles from conflicts long ago.

For me, as a civilian, I can only grasp at the faintest of straws in trying to, in any way, truly understand the mental struggles of combat veterans. Though, through my own struggles, the arts, and the ability to express, have become invaluable in not only coping with the struggle but sharing a pure, heartfelt perspective of people, from fear to hope. Dancing is a fine, perfected art, combining the body's muscles with the lightning-fast synapses of the mind. The mind wills what it wants to say, even without words. Matching that to movement is no easy feat, requiring energy that can only come from the deepest centers of the human spirit. To see the men and women of Exit 12 find this innovative path to sharing their stories is profoundly healing and extraordinarily human.

Despite setbacks from the COVID 19 pandemic, Exit 12 is still operating, with performances to come when and where it can. Those looking to get involved or donate can head to the Exit 12 website for more information. Their newest production, War Leaves Pieces, is available below.

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