“Tales of a Blerd Ballerina,” Valoneecia Tolbert’s choreopoem at the Vortex, is a story of growing up while hemmed in by expectations of conformity. Dance, music and humor are seamlessly integrated into this memoir-esque one woman show that draws from Tolbert’s own Austin girlhood.
Through the show, she dives into her roots, telling her story to prepare the world to better serve the next generation of girls like her. Tolbert is both the author and performer of the piece, while Florinda Bryant, brings her experience from her award-winning solo shows “Half-Breed Southern Fried” and “Black do Crack” to bear as the director and dramaturg of this production.
The word ‘Blerd,’ in the choreopoem’s title is a slang combination of Black and Nerd, two of young Tolbert’s identities that, in the 80s and 90s when she grew up, seemed in conflict, if only because a fully encompassing, easily explainable social label that would have helped her navigate middle and high school didn’t exist. In this show, ‘Blerd’ signifies both a part of her unique personality and her ‘blurred’ identity in a culture of restrictive labels.
Joyful allusions to the pop culture and nerd culture of the 80s and 90s fill the show. Images of the era’s celebrities are integrated into Ia Ensterä’s bright set design that suggests a young girl’s room covered in magazine cut-outs. The songs of the period appear in Johann Solo’s sound design from the moment the doors open, in a pre-show sequence of Madonna karaoke tracks. In his projection designs, Solo pulls from animation and graphic illustrator Alexander “Madison” Porter uses the art style of comics to depict Tolbert’s Blerd Ballerina in heroic poses.
Within the show, Tolbert is a fan of characters such as Shana Elmsford from “Jem and The Holograms,” and Storm from “X-Men.” In scenes from her childhood she tries to recruit kids to play superhero games with her, and when she faces problems, she uses the characters to make sense of her life.
Tolbert’s performance is charismatic and high energy, pulling the audience along as she fantasizes about celebrity crushes and her ideal epic romance inspired by “Rogue & Gambit.” Her warmth as a performer makes it easy to empathize when she shares her heartbreaks and the struggles she faces to redefine herself in the face of damaging comments that minimize her identity.
The show establishes a rhythm patterned after a girl’s routine. She goes to school, dance class, and church and spends time at home, with each setting suggested by subtle costume changes, the work of costume designer Aaron Flynn. The tales Tolbert recounts date from when she was eight years old through her teens, and the scene transitions as well as the transitions within her performance as she ages are fluid.
The dance class scenes are the most choreographed, and reinforce the play’s theme by humorously conveying that Tolbert’s young self is dissatisfied with the standardized forms and poses of ballet. Not only is she expected to move in predetermined graceful motions, as she grows up and her body changes, dance teachers draw unwanted attention to her with less-than-encouraging comments.
The show captures how difficult it is to be a Blerd Ballerina, and doesn’t hesitate to depict the ways in which Tolbert often found herself unequipped to assert herself and claim her blackness in the face of her peers’ ignorant comments and adults attempts to shape her into a certain vision of what it meant to be a lady.
“Tales of a Blerd Ballerina” is a layered self-portrait rooted in Tolbert’s own life story, with resonances that extend beyond herself. It’s a story about being othered, as experienced by a Black girl. Performing and writing this show, she chooses her own labels, and in doing so, calls her audience to define themselves as well.
“Tales of a Blerd Ballerina” continues through July 23 at the Vortex, vortexrep.org