“Uggggh!” moans Natalya as she tries to pick up a 6-foot tall man off the floor of the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum aircraft carrier with only her forearms. Laughs abound. The assignment from Roman Baca, Iraq War veteran and Artistic Director of Exit12 Dance Company, was to trust another with weight sharing and support each other to and from the ground without using any hands.
Natalya is a refugee from the Ukraine. The man is a U.S. military veteran. With help from dancers, she lifted him up.
It’s a moment from weekly workshops currently happening with Exit12 Dance Company in New York City, where veterans, refugees, and artists come together to explore themes of war through movement. The workshops culminate in a free public performance in NYC honoring Memorial Day on May 26 on the Intrepid, a Veterans Advantage partner, called “Truths Colliding.”
Exit12 is a performing arts organization led by Baca, a Marine who served in Fallujah. A dancer before he deployed, he co-founded the company with his wife and another dancer to aid his transition to civilian life.
“Exit12 tells veterans’ stories with a clear and underrepresented perspective,” said Baca. “I have continued this work through dance and workshops since 2007. Now, on an aircraft carrier, we are bringing all of these worlds together to continue our service to our country and community by sharing stories and creating space for peace and understanding.”
“Exit12 gives me what I call a ‘Survival Art,” says Vietnam vet Everett Cox. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic a year after returning from deployment and became a heavy drug and alcohol user. He attempted suicide more than once. “I believe each vet benefits from finding his or her own ‘Survival Arts.’ Dance, theater, and writing are mine. I am now retired and the father of a wonderful son.”
With the sunset in the background over the Hudson River, veterans gesture, stretch, lean, and breathe together in response to poetry, dialogue, and music. Zoom participants chime in from across the country, mirroring each other in movement explorations. Themes of trauma, loneliness, isolation, peacebuilding, and community resilience stimulate discussions about the impact of war. Our mutual responsibility in conflict entangles all the performers.
For many participating veterans, it’s their first time trying dance as means of expressing their emotions.
“What I love about what Roman has created in the Exit12 workshop is the expanse of movement and co-creation available to all of us regardless of age, service and experience,” reflects Damasa Doyle, who served in the Navy as a cryptologist. Her father was a 17 year old Marine when he went to Vietnam and brought that experience home with him. “I didn’t see war when I served, but you don’t have to when it exists in your raising, when it is the first thing you feel as you walk through the door coming home from school. War has the potential to exist wherever a soldier resides.”
I can’t express how truly profound these Mondays have been to my healing. For many of us, our pain is hidden yet somehow seen as connected to our service. In this workshop, I feel seen in my totality via expression, transmuting my heavy baggage into wings that give me flight and freedom instead of weighing me down. To do this in community and connection with my fellow participants is extremely meaningful.”
The workshop series was made possible in part by Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers. Tickets to the Memorial Day Weekend performance are available at exit12danceco.org/up-next
Army veteran Anthony Roberts, who will perform with Exit12 for the first time, asks the audience: “While you enjoy the work we are presenting, also take time to appreciate the diversity of memories and experiences that each of us bring with us and that inform what you see. It’s only a hint of the depth and complexity of each veteran performing.” He reminds viewers to “take time to reflect on why we commemorate Memorial Day. Our performance honors those who did not make it home. It is their sacrifice that reminds us of who we are and why we do what we do.”