A Veteran and His Company… Giving Back Through Dance

Packed house, waiting for the show to begin

Waiting in a packed house for the show to begin

You’ve maybe read about the amazing Roman Baca earlier this year in a fantastic feature article in the Village Voice, or maybe you followed the story last year when Baca, a Marine veteran, returned to Iraq to teach ballet to Iraqi teenagers. Or maybe you saw the performance he choreographed and performed with his ballet company, Exit 12, on the deck of the USS Intrepid. It’s no easy thing to keep up with all the fantastic things Baca has been up to recently.

You might’ve seen Balanchine’s choreographed version of The Nutcracker in New York City, or maybe a fantastic production wherever you are. But I doubt that the production you saw included a former infantryman dancing as Colonel Drosselmeyer, with an opening scene showing him as a gray-haired war veteran, making toys that he presents to a Marine in dress blues–yes, an on-stage advertisement for Toys for Tots. New York City has nothing on this Nutcracker in suburban Connecticut. At the sight of a Marine carrying toys away–like the toys filling the Toys for Tots collection bins in the lobby–the audience erupted in thunderous applause, and it was just a few short minutes into the first act.

Roman Baca, still radiating enthusiasm after dancing a show

Roman Baca, radiating enthusiasm after the show

This production of The Nutcracker marks Baca’s fourth year as the artistic director and choreographer for the production by the Ballet Theatre Company, based in Hartford, Connecticut. I’ve followed Baca’s work closely over the last few years, but this was my first time seeing his Nutcracker. And it was more than worth the trip to West Hartford to see this kind of magic in person. It was wonderful to see Baca on stage in the perfect role for him–as the man responsible for creating the magic of The Nutcracker. It was also fantastic to see familiar faces from Exit 12 Dance Company, including Baca’s wife and Exit 12 co-founder, the brilliant Lisa Fitzgerald.

Last September I had the honor of working with Baca, Fitzgerald, and other Exit 12 dancers in an artistic collaboration with Warrior Writers NYC, which gave me a tremendous appreciation and respect for the artistic process and athleticism of these amazing dancers, as well as firsthand experience with Baca’s (and Exit 12’s) commitment to service through dance.

Lisa Fitzgerald, Adrienne de la Fuente, (me), and Paige Grimard

I’m starstruck here, with Lisa Fitzgerald, Adrienne de la Fuente, and Paige Grimard

I had the pleasure of working with Aaron Atkins, who collaborated with me to choreograph dance movements to a very personal and emotional piece I’d written, and then he performed it for our group as I read the piece. It was a profound experience to have the full creative attention of this amazing young professional in creating work together. This made it all the more wonderful to see Aaron performing at full speed, first as the charming, comic Grandfather, then later as an intensely athletic Russian-style cossack. And he looked like he was having a great time on stage every minute he was out there.

I also collaborated with Lisa Fitzgerald and Paige Grimard on another piece, which you can see briefly in a CBS News.com video feature along with Atkins, Adrienne de la Fuente, and Chloe Slade collaborating with other veterans on their work. All of these dancers came to the studio for that collaboration ready to give their full efforts to veterans (who, like myself, had various levels of resistance to working in the totally unfamiliar context of artistic dance), and their sincerity and selflessness created a truly transformational experience for us. And so to see Grimard and de la Fuente leaving an audience breathless with stunning solo dances, and Fitzgerald stealing the show as the exquisite, elegant Sugar Plum Fairy–it was the kind of thing that makes you want to stand up and cheer. I had to wait until the end of the performance for that, and by the overwhelming audience response, it was clear I wasn’t alone.

Well done, Roman Baca, Lisa Fitzgerald, Exit 12, and the entire cast (including all the children, of many age groups, that Baca and the Ballet Theatre Company taught, coached, and shepherded to an amazing, high caliber performance) and crew of BTC’s The Nutcracker. And well done, West Hartford, for supporting this outstanding production with sellout audiences and ample donations to Toys for Tots.

Keep up with Roman Baca and Exit 12 on Facebook and Twitter… and make a plan to see The Nutcracker next year in West Hartford!

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