WH: Hello and welcome to another Crosscurrent Spotlight. I’m your host, Will Howarth. Today, we have an exceptionally thought-provoking podcast in which we’ll be meeting MFA student and Fulbright Scholar Román Baca. He is a former US Marine and co-founder of Exit 12 Dance Company. You may have seen him digging on the Laban Lawn in JUN as part of his work, In-Trench. He’ll be explaining why he was digging and revealing what he has planned for his final performance, which will take place at 17.30 on FRI 19 JUL. Here’s Román.
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RB: My name is Román Baca. I’m on the MFA Choreography course with my supervisor Tony Thatcher. The Fulbright Scholarship was started by Senator William Fulbright in the 1940s and ’50s as a way to encourage cross-cultural collaboration between the US and other countries.
WH: Román, how did you come to form Exit 12 Dance Company?
RB: Exit 12 Dance Company is an organisation that, looking at the theme of war and conflict, focusses on three things: storytelling, healing and peace-building.
I happened upon this idea in a very different path. I started as an artist – I was a classical ballet dancer. After dancing for a few years, I felt that I wasn’t contributing to this desire to help people and to help the world. So I transitioned out of the performing arts and joined the United States Marine Corps. I served in the Marine Corps for eight years, culminating in deployment to Fallujah, Iraq in 2005, in support of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. And that experience in the war completely changed the way I looked at global conflict; the way I looked at other countries.
So, coming back to the United States and dealing with the reverberations of experiencing war and trying to find my way, post-service, my wife suggested the arts as a way to not only reconnect with those around me but as a way to heal. And that was the initial idea behind Exit 12 – just this way to investigate experiences of war through the choreographic lens.
WH: It started off as a company producing pieces of choreography, but then I believe you moved into working with veterans. Is that right?
RB: We created a veterans’ movement workshop that not only connects veterans to other artists and collaborators in the hopes that they will create a piece of choreography, but it also inspires creativity and imagination in a way that very few mediums can.
So we started working with veterans in the realm of movement and dance. Since then, we’ve actually produced a couple of shows that actually put veterans on stage alongside dancers to tell their stories.
WH: How did veterans respond?
RB: Initially, they were very hesitant, but we think of dance as a creative exercise – moving the body and engaging the mind. And once we get the veterans in the room and we start introducing them to something they already know – physical training – they loosen up a bit. And then we lead them through these creative explorations, transforming their military training into something that inspires the way they think, inspires the way they create and inspires the way they are able to tell their story to others in order to impact them.
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WH: On 11-12 JUN, Román was to be found repeatedly digging and re-filling a hole in the Laban Lawn in a performance called In-Trench which was live-streamed on Facebook and Vimeo. He invited his audience to send him questions about what he was doing, his thoughts and his time in military service. Let’s hear him now, from back in JUN.
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RB: What I’m doing is I’m investigating memory and embodied experience through a durational physical performance, which means I’m using the military activity of digging (which is sometimes used as a punishment) to investigate memories that might pop up during this repetitive, seemingly futile exercise. We’re doing twelve hours today, twelve hours tomorrow, broken up into three-hour sections of digging and one-hour sections of audience interaction.
I think there is a lot of parallels that I’ve been able to draw between this exercise and my military service. One that pops to mind is that at the beginning of this, I was really gung-ho, rearing to go, in the hole battling it out. And then after the first break, getting back into it was really, really difficult and it got to the point where it was just, ‘fill it up, get it done and try not to think about it as much as possible.’ I think that draws a parallel to joining the military and being really, really motivated to do so, and then figuring out that it’s quite a slog. And there’s a weird sort of ambivalence that comes up that gets you through the hard times.
So now it’s time for questions.
“Is there anything that you have learnt during military training that you still carry with you and apply to every-day life?”
So much! I definitely wasn’t as persistent before going through the military. One of the things that the military did was it taught you how to eat as much as you can because you didn’t know where your next meal was going to come from or if you’d have time for your next meal. I’ve unconsciously had to try to fight against that and try to eat normally.
There’s a military term called a ‘combat nap’. I can sleep at the drop of a hat and I can tell you that there was a point when I could sleep for ten minutes, be totally refreshed and go again.
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WH: What did you learned from In-Trench?
RB: The experience of going through that durational performance was extremely risky in a lot of ways. Not only in the physical activity that was taking place but also where I was letting my mind go. I had made a decision prior to not perform and to not bridle my thoughts or bridle my reactions to what was coming. In a lot of previous interactions, when I would think about my military service and then talk about that experience, I would stop at a certain point where I thought the answers might be uncomfortable or politically incorrect or that they might uncover something that exposed either violence, weakness or some other attribute that I thought would colour what people thought of me.
This experience in In-Trench allowed those thoughts to just happen. It provided memories that I thought were gone; it provided a bit of honesty in experiences that had happened that I didn’t have to judge any more – I could just allow to be exposed.
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IP (Ian Peppiatt): Will Howarth has asked, “in a military context, is violence always cyclical?”
RB: What a deep question. “In a military context, is violence always cyclical?” I would say from the way we were trained and the way that we were forced to act, we were meant to have that violent demeanour all the time as the first form of protection – of not being a soft target.
“How did ballet help you in the military?”
I was physically fit, however differently physically fit than the Marine Corps required, so it took quite a bit of training to get up to physical standards. I had a bunch of old Russian ballet teachers. They used to yell at me all the time, so it kind of prepared me for what the onslaught of drill instructors would feel like when I got to bootcamp.
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WH: You invited your audience to give you questions. Were there any questions in particular that you were asked that really struck you?
RB: One of the individuals who jumped on the social media feed asked if I was afraid when I was in Fallujah. I think anybody who goes to war and says they’re not afraid are fooling themselves.
I remember landing in an airbase in the middle of Iraq. We made preparations to be transported to Fallujah where we would be operating. I remember being scared then, know what the transportation would entail, which was a night trip in a large truck where we were all in the back, that had supplemental armour on the sides but nothing on top to protect us. We couldn’t see anything. All we had with us were our M16s – our rifles – and we were told to stay awake the whole trip just in case we were attacked; to be ready to respond. I do remember the feeling of just gripping my rifle and the abject fear of what might happen.
I remember pulling up to Fallujah base and smelling the intense smell of burning plastic (because they were allowed to burn trash) and then making the decision to let go of my fear, giving into the fact that there was no way to protect yourself. That fear was going to be there and it wasn’t productive.
WH: In order to get the job done in Fallujah, you had to relinquish this emotion. And similarly, with In-Trench, there were points when it was difficult and gruelling, but you had committed to doing so you knew you had to. On the first day, I remember it was about 18.00, and that it started to really chuck it down with rain, and I knew you were still going to be there for another two hours.
RB: Yeah, giving into what the task was, I was able to develop a way of doing the task so that I could let go of focussing on exhaustion; thoughts about how much I wanted to quit. And I could actually let my mind wander while the physical activity was still going on.
WH: There are all kinds of spiritual practices – for example, the Kalahari Bushmen will dance for hours on end, or the Turkish whirling dervishes – and it’s this repetitive exercise that lasts for a very long time which puts the mind into a different state of consciousness which actually allows this more reflective state that you were talking about.
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IP: Clayton Murwin says, “trying to figure out what’s happening here. Is this some of the training Román received while in military, or is this a symbolic exercise where he digs a hole and buries some of his traumatic memories while serving?”
RB: Deep, Clayton. I can tell you that it leaves my mind to draw parallels to my military service, definitely. It also leaves my mind to wander into different weird things. This morning, when I was digging, there was a lot of worms in the soil and I just remember being protective of them and wanting to make sure I didn’t cut them in half with the shovel-spade or getting them out of the way by kind of tossing them to another section of the grass. But then also knowing that because of the job that I was doing, I would probably kill a worm or two. So yeah, my mind is going to, like, really, really weird, unexpected places.
Ah, Patrick (Mitchell):
“What is the one thing you would tell someone who is getting discharged from the military, in terms of how to adapt to civilian life?”
Finding purpose is number one. A lot of us joined the military because we wanted to serve others and to help others. And, leaving the military service, there’s going to be a little itch of that that’s not going to go away. Your purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose; it doesn’t have to be global; it doesn’t have to be society-changing. Your purpose could be to be the best father you can to your kids.
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WH: While you were in Iraq, did you see yourself going back to a dance career afterwards?
RB: Choreography and art was a way to provide an escape from the here and now, as a way to escape the war zone for a minute.
When I was in Iraq, we were running patrols almost every day. The patrols would last twelve hours, maybe twenty-four hour stints of duty. Being in this military mindset every day for hours and hour and hours on end is very taxing. So what I used to do was I used to climb to the top of the space where we were living, up onto the roof, and I would sketch. And just the artistic endeavour of sketching and getting lost in the pencils and the paper and creating likenesses or pictures, provided escape from the helicopters that were flying overhead; from the machine gun fire that was happening in the background; from the mortars that were landing near us, and kept my head together in a lot of ways.
WH: What do you have planned for the final performance of your course at Trinity Laban?
RB: All of my research this term has directed my work to the July performance, a work which we are calling In-Trench(ed) – with an ‘E-D’ at the end. It is going to be a collective examination of these experiences, these memories, through an interactive performance that is going to take place in the Laban Lawn, Creekside. We’re going to have performers – dancers – that are going to embody this experience that is war. They’re going to lead the audience through the Laban Lawn in an exploration of not only physical activity but an exploration of memory.
As we did in In-Trench, we are going to mic several aspects of the performance in order to create an immersive soundscape that’s happening real-time. Part of the sounds will be generated by the action of digging – the shovel scraping up against the rocks and the dirt – as well as some vocalisations from myself but also from the dancers that are acting as whispers of service.
This will lead the audience to a space where I will be again excavating a piece of the lawn. The audience will be invited to entrench me in the lawn as I continue to explore memories from service, memories from war. The aim of this is to affect the audience in a different way that leaves them with this experience in a way that they can say they not only watched it, but they tangibly went through it.
WH: The audience will be literally burying you in the ground, which is very dramatic. Is there some symbolic significance to your interment?
RB: Well, I’m not trying to directly drive the narrative of this investigation. There is a lot of parallels that I’ve been making. One of those is going back to the conversation about fear. That night that we were driving from the air-base to Fallujah, I was OK with death. I think I visualised it; I think I talked about it; I think I, in some ways, lived it, so that I could separate myself from the fear of it. This is an investigation into mortality.
WH: It’s important for an audience to confront what you’re trying to make them confront in that, in ordinary civilian life, we are completely detached from what it means to be part of military service and what the military experience is. And especially in the context of an arts institution like this, there will be many people, myself included, who have not given enough thought to what the military does for us.
RB: In the envisaging of what’s going to happen, I have designed this work to harshly jar the audience to provocation; to go to those hard thoughts: the proliferation of the military in every-day life that we see or we don’t see; sending to war our children. The guys that I had in my squad in Fallujah were ages 19-23. We, as a society, don’t think enough about these things that we are doing collectively: whether they are right or they’re wrong; whether they are justified or unjustified.
I think the one thing I want to get across, that I am unwavering about, is there needs to be more consideration about what we are doing militarily, globally, than is currently happening. However, I don’t think it’s fair to push my own views down someone else’s throat. I do think having them consider their own thoughts and come to their own conclusions is very, very important.
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IP: A question from Will Howarth: “is there a conflict between wearing a poppy for remembrance to remind us of the horrors of wars, whilst watching our governments fund conflicts abroad?”
RB: (Laughing) Will, you are coming up with the best questions that have no answer. I am definitely not the expert on international relations. I do think that remembrance is important. I strive to tell veterans’ stories as much as I can, because in some little crevice of my mind, I believe that if we share these stories, if we share these experiences, that it will slowly move us away from that proliferation of violence.
So that’s my hope from this one person sitting in the grass in London.
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WH: Román‘s final performance, In-Trench(ed), will be taking place on the Laban Lawn at 17.30 on FRI 19 JUL. For your chance to be part of this meaningful and moving performance, visit the Trinity Laban What’s On page to book your free ticket. You can also follow the links in the podcast blog at TL-Life.com .
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RB: We forgot to do Twitter.