Sitting in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, waiting for the curtain to open on American Ballet Theater’s production of Onegin, I was talking with a ballerina who’s also a budding photographer working on a project showing military families.
The two of us were passing time talking about ballet technique and combat patrols, an unlikely pairing, when she said: “I just realized that you are probably the only person with whom I can have an in-depth, professional discussion about both ballet and the military.” Before I could respond, the lights dimmed and the curtain opened. As the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's vivid score resonated through the beautiful theater, my thoughts turned to my beginnings in ballet, my transition into the Marine Corps, and my eventual melding of the two.
I started dancing after my high-school graduation. A friend was a dancer and she would often tell me about the training, the hardships, and her artistic accomplishments on the stage. Intrigued, I attended a performance of hers at a local mall. Seeing her glide across the slick linoleum on the tips of her toes, I realized ballet was something I needed to try. A few months later I stepped into my first ballet shoes.
Male dancers are scarce in ballet, and I soon landed leading roles in musicals, dance concerts and ballets across my home state of New Mexico. I eventually moved to Connecticut to study at a ballet conservatory, where I loved every moment of the rigorous six-days-per-week training. But a few years after graduation, my goal of landing a spot in a full-time ballet company still seemed unattainable and I decided to make a drastic change of direction.
I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, to serve my country and get an education, and became a machine gunner and fire-team leader. In 2005 I was sent to Iraq with my platoon, where we were tasked with patrolling local villages and protecting Camp Fallujah. During my time there, we hunted for insurgents in the dead of night, and we did our best to care for the villages in our orbit, delivering food and water, schoolbooks, and warm clothing in the winter.
We tried to do as much good as possible, but left with a nagging feeling that we hadn’t accomplished enough. Initiatives like a village-watch program didn’t have enough time to come to fruition. Interpreters, feeling apprehensive about our departure, left to rejoin their families. As I returned home, the faces and emotions of the locals and interpreters burned in my mind’s eye.
My transition back to American civilian life did not go as well as planned. I returned to a day job, bought a condo, and went back to school, but my anxiety, depression, and feelings of detachment reached a boiling point. I couldn’t readjust.
My then-girlfriend, now my wife, sat me down and challenged me to make a change: “If you could do anything, what would you do?”
I wanted to be part of a dance company.
So I choreographed a duet for two women in the neo-classical style, and sent it to competitions for feedback. It was rejected, but I wasn’t surprised. I felt like I was forcing creativity instead of creating something that I cared about. So I turned the duet into a four-movement work called Habibi Hhaloua (Arabic for my beautiful, you have my eyes) about a Marine on patrol, and sent it out.
After a few more rejections, the two ballerinas and I made the decision to start a project company, and self-produce the work. I started taking classes in development, grant writing, and budgeting and turned to dancers that we knew. We started performing in festivals and showcases in and around New York City and within a few months we had a name and a mission, Exit12 Dance Company, an organization to advocate and educate through performance on behalf of a new generation of veterans.
To date, Exit12 has performed at many venues throughout the Northeast with three major works: Homecoming, about the plight of veterans and their families; Conflict(ed,) about women in combat; and Habibi Haloua, about the underlying identity of the warrior.
Yet I wanted to do more, to give back to those people I remembered from my days in Fallujah, and to give back to veterans who were struggling like I had been before I began dancing again.
So with help from a fellowship from The Mission Continues, I partnered with Battery Dance Company in Tribeca, using their Dancing to Connect program to conduct dance workshops with public-school students in New York City, Kurdish and Arab students in Iraq, and veterans at a military arts symposium in Kentucky.
Conducting a workshop in Iraq, working to bridge the gap between two cultures through art, quieted some of the dark inner voices that had stayed with me since Fallujah. Back home, our dance movement workshops helped veterans re-purpose the harsh movements and body language they’d brought back from the war.
As our workshops came to a close, my thoughts kept returning to the artists I served with in Iraq, who would return to base and break out the sketchpad or make video—only to come home to unemployment checks—and I wondered how art could reach vets on a larger and more therapeutic scale.
So I was elated on my return to New York City by the new partnership between Lincoln Center and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) to offer an artistic intervention to help address the problems many veterans of our most recent wars face. They are providing veterans with free tickets to top performances, as well as fast-tracking veteran applications for employment at the Center—crucial help at a time when the unemployment rate in New York for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is nearly 17 percent.
As the applause subsided and the audience shuffled around at the end of Onegin, I felt elated, and revived. The ballerina asked me if I knew of any military families that she could honor with a photograph and I said I’d try to help, and left feeling reassured that more and more people are driven to connect a new generation of veterans to the arts.