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'Pieces of my life': Valoneecia Tolbert's 'Tales of a Blerd Ballerina' is personal but universal

BLERD_Poster.jpg
Vortex Rep

“Yes, I am the Blerd Ballerina,” says Valoneecia Tolbert, the writer and star of the new show Tales of a Blerd Ballerina. “This is actually all from pieces of my life, for better or worse. But they’re all magic, they’re all part of what makes you you. Now that I’m older and I have some clarity – or [am] looking for clarity in some cases – a lot of the stories that were, you know, kind of traumatizing when you were young can be funny now when you look at them from a different sphere. But also you understand people differently now that you’re an adult. So I’ve been having a lot of fun and a lot of self-discovery making this, in ways that I didn’t think I was capable of.”

Tolbert describes the autobiographical solo show as a choreopoem; it uses humor, dance, and music to explore her childhood growing up as a Blerd, or Black Nerd. It’s also, she says, “an instruction manual on how to handle Valoneecia Tolbert Prototype 2.58.”

Telling her story with movement and poetry is a natural choice for Tolbert. “I’ve always been in love with the medium of poetry, and most of the pieces that I grew up with when I was younger, that I loved, were like For Colored Girls [the 1975 choreopoem by Ntozake Shange], which was one of the biggest influences for me,” she says. “And I grew up as a dancer – an awkward dancer. So it all just made sense.”

When she was developing the piece, Tolbert says she “stalked” director Florinda Bryant, hoping to bring her onboard to help take Blerd Ballerina to the stage.

Bryant doesn’t exactly reject the word “stalked” but does point out that the feeling went both ways. “I’ve always been in awe of Valoneecia as a performer, and [I] follow her around trying to get in to see her shows as much as I can,” she says. “So it was a mutual stargazing across the universe that happened. And I just was immediately drawn in because [Blerd Ballerina] is a story that we don’t get to hear.”

Tolbert’s story is deeply personal, but it’s also rooted in the pain and anxiety that many young people have experienced while just trying to love the things they love. “You know, it’s true – we go through this thing… we’re using language like ‘awkward’ and really what we mean is ‘free,’” Bryant says. “Because ‘blerd’ is a nerd, but it’s a Black nerd specifically. And that happens a lot of the time, particularly to Black and Brown… young people, where you’re not allowed to be free, you’re not allowed to be outside of the box. And these boxes come from everywhere in the universe except from you and your own heart. And that’s what I loved about this piece, is that it is someone who’s had this lived experience [and] done the work of that, looking back and holding space for some young people to have that same experience but younger. You know, we call it awkward… but really what it is, is it’s about freedom and really, you know, felling empowered to [say] I’m just gonna bust out and dance! I’m gonna just bust out and sing! And whether someone’s watching me or not, it’s my truth and I’m gonna do it. And I wanted to be a part of making that happen, because I think it’s important.”

“There are a lot more nerds than there are cool people,” Tolbert says. “Some people are just better at playing it off. You know, I’ve definitely had that moment where... I tried to fit into this box as aggressively and tightly as possible so I wouldn’t get any more visibility, so I wouldn’t have to deal with being othered. No one likes that when you’re young. Now I’m like, Well, it is what it is. I pay my own bills. Eh. But as a kid, you don’t think that way – other people’s opinions carry so much weight.”

“For young people as a whole, you’re always made to feel outside,” Bryant agrees. “You can’t do anything outside of the norm. And we all catch it, but it’s in a specific, particular way when you’re a Black girl.”

'Tales of a Blerd Ballerina' runs July 8 - 23 at the Vortex.

Mike is a features producer at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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