War Dance: Costa Compagnie’s After Afghanistan

Costa Compagnie
A scene from Costa Compagnie’s Conversion_2: After Afghanistan.

Two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Felix Meyer-Christian, the artistic director for Costa Compagnie, a German performance art collective. Costa Compagnie productions combine images, video, music, dance, spoken word, and audience interactivity in what their website calls an “Archeology of the Present” that investigates “global transformative processes.” The highly conceptual self-descriptions belied a much easier-to-describe task that brought Meyer-Christian and me together: I helped him interview US Army service members who had served at the American military base in Heidelberg for a project exploring the base’s 50+ year history as a locus of German-American relations organized around joint military endeavor. The kaserne closed in 2013, but in its time its presence focalized intense social and political processes and personal emotional responses, especially for Germans, whose shared military history with the USA since the end of World War II has not been unproblematic. Costa Compagnie sought to capture this intensity and complexity through mixed-media art–an audacious project. Just one complicated aspect, for instance, was reconciling the fondness with which most American soldiers remember their time in Heidelberg, as well as the fondness, as I understand it, held by many Heidelberg residents who perhaps worked at the kaserne or did not view its existence with any particular animosity, with the militaristic and global-political considerations that underwrote its existence.

The project, titled Conversion_1: A German-American Choreography, was staged in the Heidelberg kaserne gymnasium in 2014. A trailer for Conversion_1 illustrates how Costa Compagnie generates artistic analogies for not just representing but recreating the experience of living within such a highly complicated admixture of historical and social currents:

Even as Meyer-Christian was conducting interviews for Conversion_1, he was also preparing for a second production, titled Conversion_2: After Afghanistan. Conversion_2’s intent was to extend Conversion_1’s interest in militarized shared histories as reflected at the level of community to German and American FOBs in Afghanistan as the NATO and ISAF involvement there wound down. From the Costa Compagnie website comes this description:

The Costa Compagnie does not try to explain the world to the audience. Instead they very effectively and powerfully document the kaleidoscope of an heterogeneous Afghan present on the way to an uncertain future by artistic means.

In the trailer for Conversion_2, the opening shots of a pneumatic drill-equipped crane breaking down a US Army FOB are particularly stunning. Some of the music is ambient military base noise—generators, aircraft engines, and other machinery—turned into pulsing electronica, which is also very cool. Costa Compagnie premiered Conversion_2 in Germany in 2015 and will stage a reduced-scale all-English version  at Vassar College in the fall of 2016. They are also negotiating to perform in New York City as well. I’ll be there if they do, and I hope you will be, too.

Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Siobhan Fallon, and Exit12 @ West Point


This event brought together three great authors–Brian Turner,  Siobhan Fallon, and Benjamin Busch–to speak about their efforts to portray the turmoil of war.  As each of them had been profoundly affected by the war in Iraq, it seemed fitting a decade and a month after the invasion to ask about their whereabouts in March 2003 and then have them describe when the war became manifest in their art. The remarks subsequently ranged over many subjects, but focused most specifically on the damage enacted on individuals and relationships by deployment and exposure to death and killing.

Asked to read selections from their works that generated strong audience reactions, Turner read “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” from Phantom Noise, Fallon read from her story “Leave” from You Know When the Men Are Gone, and Busch read passages from Dust to Dust that described his decision to join the Marines and his first few days of training at Quantico.

Later, each of the authors read passages or poems that had been written pre-2001 that had influenced them then or seemed important now.  Siobhan Fallon read from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  Benjamin Busch read Joe Haldeman’s Vietnam War poem “DX,” which he had copied into a green military-issue notebook and carried with him in Iraq.  Finally, Brian Turner recited from memory Israeli poet’s Yehuda Amachai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb”—an especially appropriate poem in light of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing:

      The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
      and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
      with four dead and eleven wounded.
      And around these, in a larger circle
      of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
      and one graveyard. But the young woman
      who was buried in the city she came from,
      at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
      enlarges the circle considerably,
      and the solitary man mourning her death
      at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
      includes the entire world in the circle.
      And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
      that reaches up to the throne of God and
      beyond, making a circle with no end and no God..


Exit12 performed two dances:  “Aggressed/This is War” consisted of two solo pieces that together depicted the story of a returned vet struggling to reintegrate into peacetime life.  “Yarjuun,” which means “We hope” in Arabic, was a piece written by Exit12 director Roman Baca in Iraq in collaboration with an Iraqi dance troupe.  Both dances were in turn playful, sad, sexy, and politically-charged, with inspired music, props, and choreography that dramatized the effects of war without being either too obvious or too elusive.

I had a hand in organizing this affair so I definitely want to thank the artists, all those in the audience, and all those helped make it happen.  Wish everyone reading could have been there, too!

Below left to right:  Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch:


Exit12 below–Adrienne de la Fuente, Joanna Priwieziencew, Roman Baca, Chloe Slade, and Paige Grimard:


War Dance: Exit12 Dance Company

Exit12 Dancer

Many veterans want to be writers or filmmakers, while others aspire to be photographers or painters.  But few, I’m guessing, dream of becoming ballet dancers or directors of contemporary dance troupes.

Veteran artists use their art to explore and comment on their war experiences. But how do you tell a war story using dance?

Roman Baca, the director and manager of the Exit12 Dance Company, is a USMC veteran of Iraq.  Prior to joining the Marines, he was a ballet dancer and instructor.  Below is his account of how he started Exit12 :

Five years ago, 2007, I was still enlisted in the Marines, and fulfilling my end of contract in the IRR, Inactive Ready Reserve. I had purchased a condo in Connecticut as an investment, and had a secure job as a CAD technician for a firm that manufactured stormwater chambers.  Five years ago in February was the day that my girlfriend Lisa, who is now my wife, sat me down in my condo and told me that things were not ok. She told I was different from serving in Fallujah and that she couldn’t handle my mood-swings, lack of purpose, anxiety, and depression. She challenged me to make a change in my life, and asked me what I would do if I could do anything in the world. I told her I would start a dance company, that it was something I always wanted to do, thinking that she would call me an idiot and move on. Instead she said, “Then why don’t we do it?” So we, along with a ballerina she knew from before, started working on my choreography at a dance studio in NYC. That studio wasn’t far from exit 12 off of FDR drive, so to be true to our small beginnings, we called ourselves Exit12.

Baca’s statement speaks to the desire to serve, related to the desire to see combat, those strong compulsions that grip so many young men and women of all backgrounds, including dancers.  It also speaks to the love and wisdom of his wife, who recognized how different and unhappy Baca was upon his return from Iraq, confronted him about it, and stood by him while helping him reach a better place.  Third, Baca’s statement raises the notion that art is both therapeutic and a reason-for-being.


Exit12 uses dance to explore martial themes and contemporary events marked by hostility and violence.  A dance titled  “Conflicted” addresses US military attitudes toward women in the Muslim countries in which they have been fighting.  Another, “Re-E-volution,” dramatizes the Arab Spring revolts.  Ambitious subjects, certainly, and as one watches the mind contemplates the link between theme and action.  Dance, it seems to me, is both highly literal and highly suggestive.  Deprived of words, the dancers convey meaning through gesture and pantomine.  Deprived of words, the swirl of movement and sound creates space for speculation and imagination.


Exit12 Dance Company website

CNN profile of Exit12

UPDATE 23 Feb 2013:

“A Dancer’s Tour of Duty,” a long “as told to” story in the Village Voice featuring Roman Baca, the impresario of Exit12, the NYC/Connecticut based modern dance company I wrote of in an early post:

“A Dancer’s Tour of Duty”

From dancer to Marine to Iraq to dancer to Iraq.  Wonderful vignettes of both a Marine’s life and a dancer’s.

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