Thoughts of war don't normally evoke images of the ballet. This might change with "Exit 12: Moved by War," the latest production in mobile payment company Square's "For Every Dream" campaign.
Created by Even/Odd, a San Francisco-based creative studio and production company, the video opens in the middle of what appears to be a military course on handling an M16. But that's only part of what's happening.
Square's "For Every Dream" campaign is a film series that examines the modern American Dream across vulnerable communities, spotlighting the people trying to change things from within. "Exit 12: Moved by War" follows Román Baca, an Iraq combat war veteran who's turned to ballet to deal with its effects.
Exit 12 is a dance company Baca founded with ballerinas Lisa Fitzgerald and Adrienne de la Fuente. Its goal is to help veterans and change how soldiers are perceived.
To understand why that matters, it helps to look back on the Vietnam War. It was never officially declared a war, and the long years that military members spent fighting it were mirrored by protesters back home, lobbying with growing violence for it to end.
It's sometimes said that before Vietnam, soldiers were seen as heroes when they came home—though it helps that the last formal declaration of "war" was during World War II, when the stakes were … existential. But Vietnam veterans were arguably as the first in modern history to be treated almost as villains, or afterthoughts at best, transforming their resulting PTSD into a national issue that's rippled through time.
Even so, the question of whether soldiers are heroes, even among veterans, has been fraught ever since. The issue isn't about whether they're heroes or villains; it's about erasing a reflex to see soldiers as symbols instead of people—scapegoats, heroes, monsters, monoliths, pawns.
This on its own could go a long way in helping to treat PTSD.
"In boot camp, you're taught these repetitive movements. And it's designed to teach anyone how to kill," Baca says in the documentary. After the service, "how do you make that training disappear?"
Close to the video's end, a scene beautifully evokes that idea: Repetitive military drills dissolve into trancelike movement, ending with a veteran setting his gun down, features trembling.
"Exit 12: Moved by War" is peppered by Baca's own reflections, and veteran testimony; the choreographer, whose two sons were in Afghanistan and remain on active military duty, is also profiled.
These stories are illustrated by people in uniform, transitioning from militant rigidity into dance. In one moment, two formidable soldiers enter a train car and begin a precarious choreography with two women in hijab. The result doesn't so much romanticize military activity as highlight its human complexity; the dance feels like an almost forced crossing, laced with tension even as the dancers touch.
"We were trained to be aggressive, to survive," Baca says of his time in Fallujah. "But we were also among civilians that you're trying to help. How do you be a Marine in a war zone and a human being at the same time? That created a lot of conflict inside of me."
The documentary ends with a show Exit 12 put on for the public, people earnestly gathered on Times Square by the veterans themselves, equipped with flyers and smiles. It's poignant to see veterans dance before strangers, expressing an array of mixed feelings—pride and guilt among them—with vulnerability, their trained bodies bent tentatively toward connection.
"Every story is not being told, and every voice is not being heard," Baca says. "Veterans are emboldened when they are able to share their lives with not only other veterans, but other people."
Baca hopes Exit 12 will grace stages the world over. His effort isn't the first to try exorcising the demons of PTSD via art: Last year, the L.A. Master Chorale revisited Mozart's mournful "Lacrimosa" with a film made in collaboration with Russell Coker, a veteran infantryman twice deployed to Iraq.
To learn more about Exit 12, visit Square's subsite, which features imagery, data and full profiles on the people involved. It also includes resources for veterans in need of help, and ways to donate to the project.