Not Worlds Apart: Exit12 Dance Company performs at West Point
By Mike Strasser
They train so their movements are executed with razor-sharp precision. They’re armed with flawless balance, form and grace. When they deliver a performance and the audience responds with cheers and applause they exude pride in their work.
These words mean the same to dancers as they do to Soldiers. Equally so, the world which dancers occupy is not so different from the one where servicemembers dedicate their lives to train and defend.
Meaghan Doherty, a dancer from the Exit12 Dance Company, made the point clear following their performance Sept. 28 inside the Haig Room in Jefferson Hall. The audience included roughly 100 cadets and faculty members, as well as nearly a dozen students from Vassar College who were shadowing cadets all day.
“I find there are actually a lot of intersections between what we both do,” she said. “We train for 20, 30, sometimes 40 years on the fundamentals...we work day-in, day-out to perfect those steps. We’re never satisfied with our performance; we’re always seeking to perfect it.”
She also spoke of the hierarchy that exists in a dance company--like a chain of command--and how dancers must work hard to advance in the ranks.
Roman Baca, a former Marine Corps noncommissioned officer and combat veteran, is the founder and artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company. He said it was the company’s first performance at any military academy. “The whole company was overjoyed and excited to have the opportunity to share our work with West Point and Vassar. When we were announced during lunch in the mess hall, the dancers told me that they were moved and realized just how important the visit was,” Baca said. “Incredible day.”
Baca said reactions vary among audiences. Whereas the civilian response can range from sympathetic to empathetic to apathetic, military audiences are overwhelmingly supportive.
“We performed at Mikey Teutel’s gallery near West Point, to a mostly military audience, and at a Military Art Symposium at Eastern Kentucky University,” Baca said. “The outpouring of appreciation and understanding from those audiences was overwhelming, and the reason we continue to do what we do, because art can heal, create bridges where none exist, and communicate deeper than mere words.”
Class of 2013 Cadet Liam Phillips, a literature major, said some may be drawn into the aesthetic appeals of art while others find deeper meaning. Regardless, it has the power to change and mold a person.
“The interpretive dance was phenomenal, not only for the aesthetic appeal, but the interpretive qualities. I am a believer that art is universal, meaning art can and will affect every person on earth,” Phillips said. “I may be naïve, but I love to imagine that art could be the linkage between a military force impatient with a people that are not as advanced technologically or socially, and a people who may feel that an aggressor has invaded the lives that they are accustomed to. Art’s value lies in the eye of the beholder, and a mutual appreciate of art can transcend differences.”
The final performance was indicative of this, Phillips said. The dancers, some garbed in combat fatigues and others covered head to toes in Middle Eastern style, suddenly disrobed (wearing skin-tight, flesh-colored attire) to reveal the simple truth that, underneath it all, humans are humans.
Class of 2013 Cadet Brandon Gillett, Co. E-2, caught the end of this performance but had attended one years’ earlier in Hartford, Conn. He was dating the sister of Baca’s wife then, and wanted to stop by Jefferson Hall to say hello.
“It is always good to see new things and an interpretative dance is definitely something that you do not see every day at West Point,” Gillett said. “I am not necessarily inclined to dance recitals but it was a good socialization performance for the cadets.”
Still, the performance was not entirely lost upon this history major.
“However, I did notice that at times they would mix military motions and techniques into the dance,” Gillett said. “For example, when the two marine dancers were on the ground, one rocked the other back cautiously in the same motion that we check enemy prisoners to make sure that the bodies are not booby-trapped. Little techniques like that were interesting to see incorporated into the drastically different world of dance.”
Though it’s not his forte, Gillett appreciates the art in which Baca decided to commit his life and career.
“When I first met Roman I was very surprised,” Gillett said. I knew that Lisa was a dancer, but he was an outgoing man with a high and tight. However, having spent over three years in West Point I have realized that there are so many different kinds of people in the military. The fact that a military member, specifically a Marine, can go and trade his rifle in for dance shoes is something that is unique about the military today…People from all walks of life joining the fight.”
It has become almost commonplace to see veterans expressing themselves through artistic mediums---recording albums, publishing books, even appearing in blockbuster films like Col. Greg Gadson did this summer in “Battleship.”
“That’s important to us too, this notion of using art as a means of reintegrating Soldiers back into mainstream society—and also helping America understand what the war experience was all about,” Lt. Col. Peter Molin, Department of English and Philosophy professor, said. “I don’t like to use the word ‘therapeutic’ but it’s just that desire to express, or the usefulness of art and communication to help us think well about these things.”
If servicemembers use art to tell their stories after the war, Molin said it is useful to use this art to educate cadets and better prepare them to lead. Molin said having the dance company here tied in strongly with departmental objectives, as well as the mission of the Creative Arts Project established at the academy last year.
“The idea of using art to dramatize war themes, military themes and Soldier themes is very much a part of the mission of the Department of English and Philosophy,” Molin said. “You can point to things like attention to detail, sensitivity to expression and nuance, discipline and imagination. A lot of artists speak of the hard work involved in their craft and that speaks volumes.”
He said cadets in the advanced composition course are studying Egypt and its culture largely through literature.
“To see a dance interpretation of the Arab Spring uprising helps that process of thinking about the possibilities of how art can reflect real-world concerns,” Molin said.
For the cadets majoring in Art, Philosophy and Literature, the department serves as the home to creative arts at West Point, so it is their obligation, Molin said, to bring dynamic and innovative artists to the academy in support of cadet classes and club activities. Last spring, the Creative Arts Project was initiated and hosted a major event during Projects Day bringing in five military veterans to perform.
“Our majors are very much interested in anything creative and ask us all the time to bring in writers, artists, filmmakers and photographers…now dancers,” Molin said.
Just as dancers share common ground with servicemembers, cadets are sharing experiences with students from Vassar College, as part of a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Last semester, Professor Maria Hoehn, Ph.D., brought students on post to attend Projects Day. She was thrilled to return to West Point and continue this collaboration designed to enhance relationships between military academies and area civilian liberal arts colleges.
“The most amazing thing for me is seeing this relationship between art and the military,” Hoehn, professor of history, said. “Both of these require immense discipline. We must always remind ourselves that we are not worlds apart.”
Likewise, West Point cadets and Vassar students may seemingly live in two separate universes. Hoehn said many students have no connection at all with the military—maybe a relative or two, but it’s not typical for them to be immersed in a military environment. The collaboration allows the two schools to develop friendships and establish relations beyond the occasional visit, which is a unique experience for both schools.
“I was delighted with my students’ reaction to their time at West Point,” Hoehn said. “The first thing I noticed was that it took me 15 minutes to get them to say their goodbyes and to get them into our van at the end of our visit. The second thing that really pleased was that they immediately asked for a list of the cadets’ emails so that they could all be in contact with them via Facebook until they return visit to Vassar.”
The West Point cadets will visit their counterparts at Vassar later in October. Hoehn said when cadets visited last year they enjoyed spending time in the classrooms and had uninterrupted time to interact with students.
“This year we are looking forward to having the students and cadets working together on some art-related assignments,” she said. “They will be viewing art related to war in our Vassar art museum, and then will attend a panel and interact with four contemporary artists and their responses to wars going back to World War II. I am confident that these meetings will bring about thoughtful discussions and exchanges.”
Molin, the EN101 basic composition course director, said this collaboration also serves to enhance relationships between faculties. He is currently working his counterparts at Vassar, as well as a member of the Classics department with whom he will assist to develop a course on the arts of war. Hoehn is excited about the prospects of this exchange and said her students can learn much from the values of cadets—like duty, respect, honor and discipline. Likewise, she is interested to see how cadets could be impacted by—and their perceptions of –the “traditionally more ‘liberal’ students.
“I am looking forward to exchanges in the future to emphasize that insight even more for our students,” Hoehn said. “I believe cadets can benefit from the free flow of ideas and time to think and reflect that defines so much of what we do here at Vassar.” Phillips met Noelle Sawyer, a Vassar junior, last year and added senior Tracy Brätt to his escort duties this semester.
“When people first come to West Point they are usually taken aback by how regimented every aspect of our lives is,” Phillips said. “It still surprises me actually. That initial shock is eventually replaced with understanding and acceptance that even though we, as cadets, are college students, our lives are inundated with military tradition as a means of becoming entirely conscious of the long history of the military and its facets today. We are training to take care of Soldiers and, as a result, we must be experts in the tradition and custom of the military as to instill discipline and order in the ranks.”
Cadets learn to embrace the West Point experience fully, though they are not unaware or unappreciative of what other students their age experience elsewhere. Phillips said he enjoyed his previous time at Vassar, and knows that students there feel stress just like cadets at West Point. He said cadets must not become narrow-minded or lose sight of the civilian populace which the military not only defends, but reflects.
“This trip to Vassar is about empathy,” he said. “We must appreciate the civilian side of life or we may fall into that trap of exclusiveness as we become complacent in the comfort of the life that we see every day, the military life that we become so accustomed to over four years here.”
Despair is a universal emotion and one even the most seasoned service member is vulnerable to, and one which was demonstrated through dance by Adrienne Cousineau from the Exit12 Dance Company. Photos by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO
An audience of roughly 100 cadets, faculty and Vassar College students were treated to a performance of interpretive dance from the Exit12 Dance Company Sept. 28 in the Haig Room in Jefferson Hall, sponsored by the Department of English and Philosophy. This was the company’s first performance at a military academy.
Roman Baca, a former Marine Corps noncommissioned officer and combat veteran, is the founder and artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company. He said it was the company’s first performance at any military academy. An audience of roughly 100 cadets, faculty and Vassar College students were treated to a performance of interpretive dance from the Exit12 Dance Company Sept. 28 in the Haig Room in Jefferson Hall, sponsored by the Department of English and Philosophy. This was the company’s first performance at a military academy.
Col. Scott Krawczyk, head of the Department of English and Philosophy, thanked the members of Exit12 Dance COmpany for their performance in front the audience of cadets, Vassar College Students, faculty and guests. Roman Baca, a former Marine Corps noncommissioned officer and combat veteran, is the founder and artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company. He said it was the company’s first performance at any military academy. “The whole company was overjoyed and excited to have the opportunity to share our work with West Point and Vassar. When we were announced during lunch in the mess hall, the dancers told me that they were moved and realized just how important the visit was,” Baca said. “Incredible day.”