What’s behind the creative mind: Vicki Tansey

By Hannah Polinski

Celebrating the arts in Brome-Missisquoi

There was no exact moment in which dancer, visual artist, and teacher Vicki Tansey realized that she wanted to become an artist. There was never a clearly defined line of when she was creating art or not, as her life has been spent cultivating a space in which she is free to express herself.

“I wanted to have a practice of creative form that allows me to let anything come through, so that everything I’m living is part of [my practice],” she explains. “I dissolved the walls between what I made as an artist and what I made as a human being in whatever role I was in.”

In refusing to label herself and her actions, Tansey opens the doors for a fluid form of expression that involves improvised dance in combination with other art forms. Working solely in one medium never appealed to the Frelighsburg-based artist, who felt that she was always exuding art in a way that could not be contained by resolving herself to the one-track world of being just a dancer. While she is trained in classic and modern forms of dance and has a deep knowledge of their technical aspects, improvisation remains a deeply misunderstood field.

“Improvisation is a discipline,” she explains. “It’s not fooling around. It’s so demanding to be inside the form and be aware of it at the same time. You have to let go of knowing what you’re going to do next. It’s the combination of being right in that little point between consciousness of what’s around you and unconsciousness of what’s happening within you.”

When performing solo, her movements typically respond to visual artworks on display, either those made with her own hands or by others. These visual artworks, whether they are paintings or tapestries sprawled with a number of symbolic words, provide the reference point for Tansey to respond to with her body. The art is absorbed and interpreted through her movements on stage without any prior rehearsal, responding to what she feels in the moment within the presence of the audience’s energy. When she was 50, Tansey enrolled in art school to get the same training and discipline in visual art as she did with dance. This new mode of thinking led her to wonder about the relationship between dance and visual art, which was where the seeds for her current practice were sown.

In collaborative works, Tansey often works with musicians who bring their own musical form of improvisation to the stage, allowing each artist to flourish in their own language as they work in conversation with one another, body and instrument providing each other with the correct melodies and basslines.

Since all performances are improvised with a changing variety of collaborators, no two moments will ever be repeated in Tansey’s practice. This requires a certain presentness that looks to neither future nor past, focusing solely on the present moment without allowing for a pause. Tansey aims to be in the moment, rather than reflecting upon it. In these moments, her body becomes an instrument for expressing emotion and weaving together a narrative, linking together a story in the same way a piano or trumpet would.

“When I’m working with musicians we just step into the space. When we’re together in the momen none of us know what the other is going to do, but we trust that the other is going to be right there. There’s this listening and responding that happens every split second. There’s no no. It’s all yes.”

Tansey’s work is grounded in place, providing herself with a solid framework for her body to respond to its surroundings. After living, studying, and working for years in Montreal, she moved her family out of the city to Frelighsburg, where she converted an old barn into her art studio. Working in studios devoid of character has never been an option for Tansey, who draws upon the local history and culture of her workspaces when creating. Her past art residencies in Cuba, Slovakia, and Newfoundland saw her reading the works of local poets to get a sense of the stories that were stored in the streets around her, getting in touch with a deeper spirit that extended beyond her current presence.

At a recent art residency in Sutton, Tansey worked from an old factory that was once a creamery. Her practice began by writing everything that came to mind about the people who were part of the creamery’s past in both French and English on the walls. Her residencies in Cuba and Slovakia saw a similar process, which she follows because of the way in which humans construct their world through words, forming our ideas and thoughts through speech. Tansey believes in a spontaneous writing process that records every word that comes to mind, later examining its results to find juxtapositions and similarities that can inform her dances.

Now at 77, Tansey is still active in the dance scene. Younger audiences have been amazed at her range of movement, which she likens to her practice of being in the moment. Since her dancing is based on responding to what’s happening around and inside her body, she knows the limits to which she can push herself and when to do so. Improvisation is a listening process with herself, and staying in tune with her own body guarantees she will be happy with its results.

“Improv as a practice is the distillation of all the living stuff that I have,” she explains. “I meditate every day. I’m so imperfect and I’m not on top of it all the time by any means, but that awareness, that watchfulness, that reflection is happening on levels that I don’t even know. Not just in your head, but your whole body.”

Tansey is currently planning on having some performances this summer, which you can learn more about on her website at http://www.vickitansey.com/.

This project has been made possible by the Community Media Strategic Support Fund offered jointly by the Official Language Minority Community Media Consortium and the Government of Canada.

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