Conversations with Our Relations: Dolly Berlin

Aanii! Dolly Berlin ndizhinikaas.

(Hello! My name is Dolly Berlin)

I am a burlesque showgirl, event-producer-on-pandemic-hiatus, and proud Indigiqueer/Bi+ mixed Ojibwe woman based in Tkaronto. Since the start of 2021, I have been collaborating with Never Apart to bring you this column highlighting Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer folks making waves in the arts. And I’d like to take the opportunity to back it up and introduce myself a bit further. Pre-pandemic, there was nothing I loved more than being intimate with a crowd, and I thought it was time to do the same with this audience. Sitting on the edge of what may actually be the final stretch of lockdowns as vaccines roll out across the country, I’ve been in so many conversations with myself about what the future may hold. Can you relate?

I have been performing burlesque in various capacities since early 2009, a time that feels so far and away from where the industry is now. Both globally and at a local level, as an artform we’ve grown. Is it frivolous and silly at times? Sure. But there are plenty of offerings that provide more than just a tease. And while queerness has always been a main artery in the body of the burlesque revival, the last 5 or so years have seen a definite broadening in the celebration of the gender spectrum. QTBIPOC artists fed up with the status quo are building the type of spaces they want to see in the world, and like drag, it’s an artform that is only going to keep growing and elevating.

In my area, Les Femmes Fatales has been around for the last decade, headed by “church lady gone bad” Dainty Smith. Dainty and I met over Facebook, her extending an invitation to perform with Les Femmes Fatales back in 2013, and I have continued to perform with the troupe since. A storyteller and playwright, her approach to cabaret curation is unique. With a special focus on Black women, the troupe includes 16 members of various backgrounds. Productions are set in series with an overall narrative, broken into more concentrated themes for individual shows within each one. Many of the more sensual and emotion driven pieces I have done have been put together for Les Femmes Fatales shows. There are many different ways I engage with the stage. Sometimes it’s all about being a big ole clown. I’m often inspired by vintage bump n grind or cheesy 80s bikini contest energy. But something about having an individual moment as part of an overall storyline has always pushed me. Over the years I have seen some truly stunning numbers at these events; they are a definite favourite to attend. Real life experience in the church has aided Dainty in being a gifted host, preaching about femme magic and the power of red lipstick.

As a whole, Indigenous burlesque, drag, and other cabaret umbrella performance has been steadily growing and thriving, and it’s beautiful to see. Lou Lou Duchesse de Riere is a top name. Virago Nation have been keeping the west coast hot. And two of my other faves, Tygr Willy and Midnight Wolverine, have been blowing audiences minds with Two Spirit brilliance since their debuts some years ago. I recently got to work with both of them on some upcoming projects, and it teased me with the energetic spark I used to feel interacting with other artists on the regular.

I’ve been involved in various scales of event production over the years, but had focused on solo producing the weekly “Sinful Sundays” for the last handful, each night featuring a small rotating cast within the much beloved bordello chic walls of Cherry Cola’s. My last turn on that stage was for a smaller than usual audience braving the uncanny feeling in the air right before the initial shut down, and I hope it won’t be my last. On one hand, it’s projected to still be some time before it could be safe to once again gather in crowds. I don’t want to get my hopes up. But the pot of water simmering on the back burner feels like it’s beginning to bubble. While the U.S. and elsewhere have seen smaller theatre and live venues re-opening, I know many peers have been contemplating the uncertain return to life beyond our living rooms.

In the absence of the stage, I have come to reconcile that in the past I have mistakenly put too great a value on my persona as a nightlife entertainer. The precious ego! Involuntary vacation has definitely made me so more comfortable with divorcing myself of that and given me a healthy breath to nurture other areas of my life I had been neglecting. Since going back to school in the fall, I have specifically avoided bringing up my performance life at all with my peers, almost as if to train myself to not lean into it as the forefront of my being. While I’m looking forward to getting my sea legs back, I’m also going to maintain a better life balance going forward.

When opportunities to present work digitally have come around, balance and planning have definitely been a challenge. Creating digital art can be quite the intense labour of love, almost like starting from scratch. The stage is where we can be the most ferocious versions of ourselves, which is sometimes the last thing I’m feeling while clomping around a basement apartment in heels, tinkering with the framing of my cell phone camera and ring light. Now, not only are we designers, choreographers, make-up artists, dancers and social media managers, but also lighting designers, videographers and editors too. My partner has completely shelved their stage persona for the time being, unmotivated by the lack of tangible energy exchange that live shows provide. On the flip side, and not to sound too flippant, I have seen many artists come up with absolutely brilliant concepts that would be impossible to execute in even the slickest of live venues. Digital offerings also come with the added bonus of not having to navigate mobility barriers in a city that’s absolutely brutal on that front, and a huge bonus – getting to connect with faces all across the world.

Some of my favourite online offerings to come out pandemic era performance art have been #ClownsKillEmpires themed monthly showcases featuring casts from all over North America, and the amazingly titled “Thirst Nation” Indigiqueer and 2-Spirit variety show put together by Tygr Willy and Weird Alice. The aforementioned Dainty also just wrapped “Push.Pull,” a collaboration with multidisciplinary artist Golboo Amani. Originally conceived pre pandemic as a theatre event, the virtual project spanned 6 months with a mix of showcases and panels, offering a “diverse range of contemporary practices reflecting the theatrical, political and emotional range and depth of cabaret performance.” The project posited that cabaret is not simply low art. Despite my tagline “High Femme, Low Brow,” I have to agree with that notion.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve also been immensely grateful for the brilliant teachers, writers, speakers, land defenders, activists, and crafters who have been sharing their gifts and creating spaces to gather. I recently learned to make beaded earrings through a community group, and some time ago attended some helpful and grounding mental wellness events put on by 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations. In one of these events, a speaker actually happened to quote my childhood elder who passed years ago, making me feel very lucky I randomly joined that day. I’d been thinking about him and it was touching and so out of the blue to hear his name said aloud and his words echoed. Another group I really have to commend are the folks at Assembly of Seven Generations in Ottawa, who frequently host webinars, offer cultural support and do amazing work with the youth in their area.

As we move into Pride season, I can’t wait to soak up as much queer connection and politically charged goodness as possible. Pinkwashed Pride™ comes with some more than fair critique, but there is still a plethora of homegrown inspiration, joy, and learning to be found. Feel your most ferocious, audacious, silly and sensual fantasy (safely!). Spread kindness. Listen and lift each other up. To sign off, I have a short list of stunners primed to fill your feed with Indigiqueer excellence, and just a few places I’ll be logging in over the next month listed below. Come and join me?

Glam up your feed:

Adrienne Huard – “Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer Anishinaabe curator, art critic, scholar and performer.”

Beau Ryder – “Tender and rough, working to fuck some shit up and ground some feelings.”

Betsy Swoon – “The love goddess that leaves them wanting more.”

Chelazon Leroux – “Indigenous and Thriving.”

Jennifer Dafuque – “Halifax Drag persona.”

Midnight/Mx Wolverine – “Tkaronto’s midnight tease, trickster and shapeshifter.

Mother Girth & Rez Daddy – “The two-spirit tease.”

Raven Wgnz – “Abolitionist, Storyteller, African Mohawk 2SPIRIT Trans Woman.”

Sita Moon – “Tkarón:to’s fat, sexy, stripping Anishinaababe vampire brat.”

Tygr Willy – “Them Fatale.”

The Bannock Babes – “A collective of #indigidrag mostly out of Treaty One Territory.”

Weird Alice – “Video host, drag queen, beadwork artist and weird trash bag.”

Virago Nation – “Canada’s all Indigenous burlesque performance troupe, rematriating Indigenous sexuality.”

Tune In:

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