‘Tales of a Blerd Ballerina’ seamlessly integrates dance and humor — Sightlines

“Tales of a Blerd Ballerina”, Valoneecia Tolbert’s chorepoem at the Vortex, is the story of a childhood plagued by expectations of conformity. Dance, music and humor are seamlessly integrated into this memoir-inspired one-man show that draws inspiration from Tolbert’s own childhood in Austin.

Through the show, she delves into her roots, telling her story to prepare the world to better serve the next generation of girls like her. Tolbert is both the play’s writer and performer, while Florinda Bryant, brings her experience from her award-winning solo shows “Half-Breed Southern Fried” and “Black do Crack” as director and playwright to this production.

The word “Blerd” in the title of the choreography is a slang combination of Black and Nerd, two of young Tolbert’s identities who, in the 80s and 90s, when she was growing up, seemed in conflict, not if only because a completely encompassing and easily explainable social etiquette that would have helped her navigate middle school and high school did not exist. In this show, “Blerd” signifies both a part of her unique personality and her “fuzzy” identity in a culture of restrictive labels.

Cheerful allusions to 80s and 90s pop culture and nerd culture fill the show. Images of celebrities from the era are integrated into Ia Ensterä’s luminous scenography, which suggests a young girl’s room covered with magazine cutouts. Songs from the era appear in Johann Solo’s sound design as soon as the doors open, in a pre-show sequence of Madonna karaoke tracks. In his projection designs, Solo draws inspiration from animation, and graphic illustrator Alexander “Madison” Porter uses comic book art style to depict Tolbert’s ballerina Blerd in heroic poses.

On 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 children to play superhero games with her, and when she faces trouble, she uses the characters to give meaning to her life.

Tolbert’s performance is charismatic and energetic, drawing the audience in as she fantasizes about celebrity crushes and her ideal epic “Rogue & Gambit”-inspired romance. Her warmth as a performer facilitates empathy as she shares her heartache and the struggles she faces redefining herself in the face of damaging comments that downplay her identity.

The show establishes a rhythm modeled on a girl’s routine. She goes to school, dance class and church and spends time at home, each setting suggested by subtle costume changes, the work of costume designer Aaron Flynn. The tales Tolbert tells date from the age of eight through her teenage years, 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 expressing that Tolbert’s younger self is unhappy with the standardized forms and poses of ballet. Not only is she expected to move in predetermined graceful movements, but as she grows and her body changes, dance teachers bring unwanted attention to her with less than encouraging feedback.

The show captures how difficult it is to be a Blerd ballerina and is quick to describe how Tolbert often found herself unequipped to assert herself and claim her blackness in the face of ignorant comments from her peers and to adult attempts to shape into a certain vision of what it meant to be a woman.

“Tales of a Blerd Ballerina” is a layered self-portrait grounded in Tolbert’s life story, with resonances that extend beyond herself. It is a story of otherness, experienced by a black girl. Performing and writing this show, she chooses her own labels and, in doing so, calls on her audience to define themselves too.

“Tales of a Blerd Ballerina” continues through July 23 at The Vortex, vortexrep.org

Colleen D. Ervin