Exploring war through dance: Fulbrighter Roman Baca

As part of the Fulbright Commission’s 70th anniversary celebrations, we are producing a series of profiles of current Fulbrighters and alumni. Roman Baca is the Fulbright-Trinity Laban Award postgraduate student, pursuing an MFA in Choreography at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London and is a classically-trained ballet dancer. Here, he shares his perspective on his Fulbright experience.

Roman Baca (centre) with Prof. Anthony Bowne, Principal of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Penny Egan, US-UK Fulbright Commission Executive Director

What made you apply for a Fulbright?

My interest in international work was sparked by my service as a US Marine during the Iraq War. My platoon was deployed to Fallujah from 2005-06. During our combat patrols, we had daily interaction with interpreters, local Iraqis, and children in the villages. Those interactions opened my eyes to a culture that was completely different than we had been instructed in our briefs. The stereotypical Iraqi local did not exist. The stereotypical Iraqi insurgent did not exist. What we found were a rich, diverse populace with varying backgrounds, education, and lives.

On leaving the Marines, I went back to dance, having trained as a classical dancer before joining up, and started choreographing about the war. In my work I investigated specific altercations and interactions with the people that didn’t sit well in my memory. These artistic investigations fuelled a desire to teach dance in Iraq. As I researched the ways to make that goal a reality, I happened upon other professional artists who were using dance as a cultural connector. All of them, as I remember, were Fulbright alums.

So, I started researching the Fulbright as well as potential projects and countries. As I told more people about my research, I was connected to more Fulbright alums, all eager to help me learn more.

The ultimate catalyst to apply for my Fulbright was two-fold. The first was an opportunity to partner with a theatre in the UK to produce a new choreographic work incorporating former soldiers from the US, UK, and Iraq. Second, I was accepted as a Veterans in Global Leadership Fellow, and encouraged to apply for a Fulbright.

I initially chose Trinity Laban for my award because their Masters of Arts in Choreography program was a perfect fit for me. It would allow me to grow as an artist by investigating my practice as it currently existed, and then would push me to experiment, and take risks to grow that practice.

What were you doing before you started your Fulbright?

Before I started my Fulbright, I was at a crossroads. I was the artistic director of a dance company and a ballet school and performing company. With one, I was making and producing work about war that was having a direct impact on audiences, veterans, and war victims. With the other, I was producing full-length ballet productions, leading a school with ballet students of all ages, and facilitating dance in the community programs.

I saw a large gap in my knowledge, and also the need for arts admin experience, so I enrolled in Columbia University’s Masters in Non-profit Management. Noticing my chaotic career path, a mentor and friend sat me down and challenged me to focus on what really called me and what I was passionate about. I needed that challenge to ensure that what I was doing with art and war was relevant, important, and innovative.

How would you say your Fulbright award shaped you so far?

The Fulbright award has propelled me forward personally and professionally. Professionally, it is turning out to be the foundation from which I will create the rest of my life. Above all else, it is a validation that my work is important. It has become a lens through which I have learned that choreography can be much more than interesting steps to music or interpretive dance – that it can be rich in researched ideas and theoretical underpinnings. It has opened doors that have helped propel my work forward, to more audiences, working with more communities, impacting more people.

Personally, it has brought my wife and I closer together. In the past ten years, following my military and artistic callings, we have been apart more than we’ve been together. Now, we spend so much time together and our work-life balance has been completely transformed. How many people can say that Fulbright helped their marriage? Well, it helped mine!

What impact has your Fulbright award had on your understanding of the people and culture of the UK?

Before I arrived in the UK, I thought, “how different can it really be?” My answer today is, “A lot different, but not in the way I expected.” I think that the US could learn a lot from the UK in terms of education and research in art. I think, right now, the US and the UK are facing similar issues politically, but I’ve found that in the UK they actually discuss it at length rather than use divisive language and closed circle conversations.

I’ve found that British military veterans have the same comradery as US veterans, and they will welcome a US vet into their community with open arms. And, I’ve found that if I am truly interested in other people, I can make friends. I’ve also found that if I share my knowledge and expertise, I can make friends for life.

And what impact has your award had on your perceptions of the US?

It has also been eye-opening to view the US from abroad. Specifically, the way that the US examines most global events by either the contribution that the US has made to that event, or by the impact that that event has had on the US, is uninformed, out-of-touch, and potentially isolationist. The opportunity to engage in cultures in which multiple perspectives from multiple countries are considered and communicated has been refreshing. True diplomacy listens as much as it talks, sometimes more. True cultural engagement includes others. True global leadership requires a balance of strength and empathy.

Roman's work-in-progress, 'The Rite'. Photo courtesy of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

How has your Fulbright award developed you as a leader?

I learned, in the Marines, that leadership is making sure the team succeeds. The Marine Corps puts a significant amount of effort driving home traits, best practices, and methods of leadership. The Fulbright has given me the opportunity to test this ethos in a completely different arena – an artistic one. I have concentrated on sharing my knowledge, setting a good example, and helping others. This has added to my artistic leadership skills.

Are there any partnerships that have already come out of your Fulbright experience?

One is with the Soldier’s Arts Academy, a charity in London that supports military veterans working in the performing arts. They are helping to produce my work-in-progress and I am volunteering with them to help with marketing and promoting their newest show, Soldier On, which is a stage play about a bunch of veterans who come together to create a play based on their experiences. I have also met with the British Army’s Cultural Affairs officer who is connecting me with serving soldiers who have a background in the performing arts, and with communities with which I can run workshops, connecting young people and serving ad non-serving veterans. Lastly I’m collaborating with the Maltings, a theatre in Berwick-upon-Tweed, on my latest choreographic work, The Rite, connecting World War I to the current wars and war experience.

Do you think the programme is relevant for the next 70 years?

I believe that the Fulbright programme is vital to the US and its partner countries. Living in the UK, it is easy to be exposed to other cultures and people, because they are so close. America doesn’t have the same exposure to such a diverse mix of people, languages, and traditions. I think that the Fulbright program offers a way for that exposure to happen, and for those stories and experiences to be communicated to encourage cross cultural travel and understanding.

I believe that more people in the US, specifically at the college age, should be exposed to a radically different culture. The Fulbright is one important way of making this happen. When I teach, I hope to encourage my students to seek out opportunities to travel and live in another culture – and – who knows, I might develop a program to take students abroad.