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  • Futurismo:Linking Past and Present through an Artistic Aesthetic
  • David J. Popalisky (bio) and Jeffrey Bracco (bio)

“Ah Futurismo” shouts the recorded voice of F. T. Marinetti as the performers’ stark, uplifted gestures arrest the descending light at the conclusion of Futurismo, a dance theatre production at Santa Clara University collaboratively created in 2013 by theatre artist Jeffrey Bracco and choreographer David Popalisky. This collaboration grew out of a mutual interest in the ideas, strategies, and values articulated in the pre–World War I foundational Futurist manifestos by F. T. Marinetti and how he and his collaborators implemented them through performance. Recognizing that the early Italian Futurists’ embrace of speed through glorification of machines resonates with our present reliance upon technological innovation, we chose to use performance to critically investigate our relationship with speed and technology in the twenty-first century. This essay considers the implications for undergraduate students and ourselves as teaching artists of the creative choices employed in Futurismo. Our process, with its strengths and challenges, may prove useful for other artist-educators working in academic settings.

Futurismo premiered in Images, the Department of Theatre and Dance’s annual dance concert that develops students’ performance skills through a diversity of choreographic approaches.1 Santa Clara University’s student population represents a cross section of young adults who live in the heart of Silicon Valley, a region emblematic of the speed and technology demanded by our contemporary consumer culture. The cast of Futurismo consisted of the two faculty creators and nine student actor-dancers, who participated as part of their undergraduate training. With no prior knowledge of Futurism, these student performers were asked to engage with performance history through unfamiliar ideas and methods, drawn from early Italian Futurist avant-garde techniques such as nonlinear structure, alogical language and events, and clipped, disconnected dance phrases, all emblematic of the performance strategies called for by Marinetti.

By utilizing these techniques we intended to energize and disturb both our creative process and the performers’ normal working methods—allowing, even cultivating confusion among them, as well as our audience. Kyle Gillette, in his article “Upholstered Realism and ‘The Great Futurist Railroad,’” discusses how the Futurists regularly disturbed performance expectations in order to disrupt accepted cultural values. He notes that “[f]or Futurism, the theatrical ‘train wreck’ provided a way to explore modernity’s destructions through a performance paradigm that would celebrate disruption, improvisation and annihilation” (91). Similarly, Futurismo allowed for performance as disruption while evoking Marinetti’s central tenant of “art as action,”2 achieved through Futurist serate—evenings featuring a pastiche of disparate performance elements, as discussed in Günter Berghaus’s “Futurist Serate and Gallery Performances.” In this analysis we address the relevance of creating an original performance work that incorporates Futurist concepts and strategies in order to challenge undergraduate actors and dancers as performing artists, while also commenting on contemporary culture.

What follows is a rationale for why the early avant-garde period of Futurism prior to World War I was most relevant to Futurismo’s creation and thematic development. Next, we discuss how early Italian Futurist strategies and specific historical artifacts influenced the conceptualization of [End Page 307] Futurismo. We then review specific artistic choices and key performance highlights that illuminate our themes. We conclude with reflections on the creation of Futurismo within a zeitgeist of technology and speed, as relevant today as for Marinetti and company, and further articulate how this process energized our students and, just as significantly, ourselves.

While we acknowledge the historical derailing of Italian Futurist artistic ambitions toward an alignment with fascism between the world wars, this dubious historical legacy has, until recently, largely overshadowed the energy and excitement generated by the movement prior to World War I.3 Futurism’s dynamic contributions during this prewar period significantly influenced the questioning of nineteenth-century European, Old World values, which stood in contrast to the emergence of mass production and a rising commodity culture. Walter Adamson’s “How Avant-Gardes End—and Begin: Italian Futurism in Historical Perspective” offers a rationale for focusing on this early period of Italian Futurism: “Indeed there are important critics and historians of Futurism who see its period of genuine...


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pp. 307-319
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