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Montana St. Claire Oral History Interview, September 6, 2021

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is Tuesday, September 7th 2021. My name is Laurie Kurutz. My pronouns are she/hers. Would you introduce yourself, tell us your pronouns if you care to, and tell us all the things you do?

MONTANA ST. CLAIRE: My name is Mahima Kaupp and my stage name is Montana St. Claire. I do go by she and hers. Well, all the things that I do. In regards to this beautiful project, I am a Burlesque dancer. I own Bend Burlesque Company. I produce and direct the shows and run all the social media and everything that comes with running the company.

LK: What is Burlesque?

MSC: I get asked that every single show that I do and my favorite answer really 00:01:00is Burlesque is art. It's an expression of art through...the medium that I use is my body and my costumes and my humor. So Burlesque is an art form. It's theater, it's a mockery of current events, it's just, it's kind of a little bit of everything that you want to make it.

LK: How do you describe the kind of Burlesque that you do?

MSC: I would say I'm a good mix between Neo-Burlesque and traditional Burlesque. I really love the traditional, big flowy feather fans and rhinestones and that kind of just giant pin-up Moulin Rouge kind of thing. But I also really enjoy 00:02:00the Neo twist, the new Twist, of just taking something from pop culture or from my childhood and wrapping up that whole theme into dance as well. So I say I'm kind of a balance of the whole spectrum. I like to work with all of it.

LK: Why do you do Burlesque? What does it give you artistically?

MSC: Well, expression, number one. Artistic expression is first and foremost why I do Burlesque. It definitely has... it's more of an evolution for me, too. So why I started Burlesque 'cuz I was interested in and curious and it's turned into like a confidence builder. I do Burlesque because I have a community and a 00:03:00family through Burlesque. That's really important to me. It's a constant education about myself and about other people. You know honestly it's turned into more of a learning and teaching experience at this point. So I mean, I do Burlesque because it is an artistic expression and it changes with my phases of life. As it's almost a decade of doing it. I've changed a lot. How I do Burlesque has changed, so it is like an evolution that I just continue to grow with.

LK: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

MSC: I am an Oregon girl, born and raised here in Oregon, born in Salem. Then my parents moved us over to Central Oregon when I was very young. I've lived here my whole life.


LK: And then in your formative years, whatever those were, what led you to performance?

MSC: I think of formative, you know, as when I was really little and I was super into ballet, as a little kid. Like from [age] five to seven that was my thing. But that certainly didn't lead me down the Burlesque path, 'cuz I only did that for a very short amount of time before I was over it. So I would say starting in middle school and high school, I kind of became obsessed with old movies like Some Like It Hot. I had a huge crush on Brigitte Bardot, she was just my goddess of women. And Marilyn Monroe. You know, Bettie Page, Tempest Storm, all of these, these iconic women that you can see in Hollywood kind of pushed me toward 00:05:00pin-up culture a little bit. I honestly didn't know what Burlesque was for a long time. But I definitely just had this pull to this culture. And dance, I've always been attracted to dance in all forms.

LK: What formal education or training? College degree?

MSC: I have an art degree. I have my Nursing degree. My Bachelors in social work and I have a minor in anthropology. So I've been going to school a long time and none of that really relates to Burlesque of course. Maybe the anthropology degree aligns with Burlesque.

LK: And then Burlesque. In what year and how did you get started?

MSC: I think it was 2012-2013. My daughter was coming out of being [age] 1, 00:06:00[age] 2 and is 10 now. So that's how I...that's my timeline. What happened is I met a group of friends that were musically inclined and very creative people like myself. I met my business partner, who I started and founded the business with, Leah. We met on a boat one day at the lake and her husband is in a band with a couple mutual friends. So we just all got to talking and playing music and it ended up that Leah and I had all these artistic ideas that really collided really well. Our friendship formed very quickly and I think the first 00:07:00day we met out on the boat party we were... like talking about how cool it would be for Central Oregon to have a Burlesque troupe. So long story short, we took a year to kind of form it and then we put on our first show on Halloween after or whatever that was 2012-2013. It was just Leah and I dancing, and we had a very small band with all these guys that we hung out with, and that's just...we just went for it "skirts to the breeze" I guess.

LK: Your stage name is Montana St. Claire. How did you pick that? Does it have personal meaning?

MSC: Yes! It is multifaceted and I honestly don't talk about this very much. So "Montana," I've never been to the state. I would love to go visit someday. But I 00:08:00took some inspiration from the state because you know it's wild and open, and I'm a country girl at heart. I grew up in the country, so I kind of was pulled toward that word and that state. But I also really love the show Deadwood and so one of the characters they call him Montana and he's my favorite character on the show. Then I love the 49ers and Joe Montana is a quarterback or was a quarterback. The "Montana" came from all of this accumulation of Montanas all over. The St. Claire part: I was raised very Catholic. St Clair came in and then it sounded like French to me, very sexy and all of my Brigitte Bardot stuff came in from there. So it's just kind of conglomerated into this name. And here I am!


LK: Just launching your Burlesque career in 2012-13: how did you do that? Did you do research? Did you go see shows? How did you and Leah, your partner Leah, how did that happen?

MSC: To be very honest we YouTubed. We danced, we moved in together, so we had this home of musicians and artists. I was going through nursing school and so it was like, you know, we would all work during the day and then at night we would create art and music. Then we would all travel together. We went to New Orleans and saw burlesque shows and music. We went to Portland. We saw Dita Von Teese. 00:10:00We went to Vegas and watched all the showgirl things we could watch. Neither one of us had any dance experience, barring my ballet, when I was five. We just self-taught and we both had such a huge passion for it that we worked really hard to create something. So honestly, it was just an idea and this beautiful thought and we just created something out of it. It was hard!

LK: A lot of people talk about how Burlesque is democratic with a small D, meaning anyone who wants to do it, can. I think that you just demonstrated that.

MSC: I think if you have a passion and you have a drive and you have support, 00:11:00you can do pretty much whatever you want to do. You just have to keep working.

LK: You mentioned nursing, and is that what you do outside of Burlesque to support your creative life?

ST.CLAIRE: It is, yeah. I'm a full-time RN.

LK: And then you mentioned there was no Burlesque community when you started, what is it like now?

MSC: You know we have [Burlesque] troupes come through Bend often, which is awesome. I think the more the better and Bend Burlesque is the troupe in town, it's just grown crazily. I mean it started with two people, Leah and I, and it's now 20-plus people. People email and call, and want to be a part of it all the time. We teach classes and do workshops and have an academy, it's great! I don't 00:12:00know how to describe how big it is now, cuz to me, starting from the tiny little seedling it feels like a giant tree now. It's just so much more intricate.

LK: What are your venues?

MSC: Everywhere, anywhere, we can dance. Anywhere that will have us. We are so lucky 'cuz there's so many venue owners in this town that want to support us and want the art there and do a great job of lifting us up. They've been accommodating us. So we have clubs downtown, we have breweries that host us. We'll always reach out to random parties. We'll go hang out and it's just kind 00:13:00of like, pull something out of a bag, are there so many places that are happy to have us and that we reached out to. They're like "'we didn't know this existed! Yes! Come! " It's really great.

LK: Who are the audience that come to your shows?

MSC: We have some die-hard fans that have been coming since the beginning. My dear Mother is our biggest fan, for sure. It's totally a family affair. On that note, my brother EmCees a lot of shows. And then my mom's always screaming and helping work the door and stuff. So I mean we have people that have been coming since the beginning and are always there to support us. Then people just hear about it the day of and pop in, have never been to a Burlesque show. We have Burlesque connoisseurs that show up and really love the shows. It's just kind of 00:14:00a mixed bag. Everybody comes, everyone's welcome. We always have the most beautiful audience, everyone's so supportive here in Central Oregon. It's great.

LK: There are a couple of phrases I came across when I was doing research, so I'm going to just pop them at you. What is "scantily clad scientists?"

MSC: "Scantily clad scientists" is... is a project that Leah and I started and it's all about entertainment and education while scantily clad scientists explain a topic. So, Leah and I are the scientists and we generally wear very small outfits and discuss, in a comedic manner, really scientific topics. So our 00:15:00recent one... Well, we've done the agarikon mushroom, which we've made like a video and went on a little hike, an expedition and interviewed an expert in the field. Then we, most recently, I've been working on beavers and learning all about beavers and habitats and how they can save the planet. Our idea is to put on our lingerie and create a Burlesque educational TedTalk. And have people learn and be entertained and also laugh a lot and hopefully change the planet one beaver at a time or topic at a time or whatever. So that's that side project.

LK: And then what is Burlesque-ing anthropology?

MSC: You've been looking at my Instagram! So I think that's kind of, what's the 00:16:00word, it's like a spoof. I'm trying to make fun of myself a little bit because I'm an anthropologist at heart. That's what I've always wanted to be and what I've pursued in my college career so anthropology is the study of humans and What Makes Us Human. So if I want to be a Burlesque-ing Anthropologist I suppose I'm studying why I Burlesque and what makes a Burlesque dancer and my quest to answer that will never end learning scenario.

LK: Why do you call yourself a UFO-ologist?

MSC: Also, kind of a joke? So I have multiple podcasts that bring me tons of 00:17:00inspiration. One of them... one of the guys that runs the podcast is a UFO-ologist and I'm very drawn to things that are...things that are experimental and exciting and unexplained. There's a word, and I think I wrote it down actually, cuz I was cracking up when I saw that you were going to ask me that question. Honestly Laurie, no one asked me anything about that. So okay, it's like a belief in the extraordinary and the unexplained. So I could say I'm a UFO-logist. I'm a cryptozoologist. I'm an anthropologist. I'm all of these -gists, just that's part of me personally and part of my persona to be just a little nerdy and always looking for an explanation.


LK: Well you're very busy. You work full time. You run an academy, a Burlesque Academy. You have side projects. Could you describe a week in the pre-COVID life of Montana St. Clair? What was that like?

MSC: My life is crazy. So pre-COVID... it's almost like my life got a little busier with COVID. Yeah I'm a single parent. So running my kid back and forth. I'm a home health nurse so I see patients in their home. So it's like a typical day times 7 is: drop the kid off at school, rush to work, get charting done, go 00:19:00see patients. You know all of this is... planning shows, advertising for shows, marketing, creating, doing costume work, dancing choreography, like trying to keep my community healthy, my Burlesque Community healthy, trying to have friends. I love to travel and have a girlfriend I love to travel with all the time, planning travel adventures. My kid's name is Kiwi, so taking Kiwi places, making sure she's healthy and happy and outside as much as possible. And you know, trying to get outside myself. I'm an outdoors kind of person. I've got to go de-stress outside. So that's like one day and times that by 7. You know and then a weekend is mostly just spent catching up and recuperating from the week. It's just non-stop.

LK: Where did you learn the business skills to run a Burlesque Academy and 00:20:00negotiate contracts with venues and all the other things?

MSC: So you know, I suppose it's just like a self-taught thing. I'm not very business-minded and general. I suppose it would benefit me to go take some business. I just don't have a lot of interest in it, so I don't know... it's a hard question. I could use more help in that arena. But so far it's just like trial and error. And winging it and making a lot of mistakes and learning the hard way. I still do that, it's still a struggle for me sometimes. I'm just a creative arts person here, and then like the numbers and paperwork or over here. 00:21:00Trying to marry those has been a struggle, but like I said, trial and error. I just have to try to be optimistic and keep pushing. I'm getting flustered just talking about it! It's been hard! It's been super hard to run a business and have no experience. It's been awesome. I've learned more about myself, more about business, more about numbers, in the last few years and I've ever even thought I would. Just self-taught, and trying to make it work.

LK: So shifting to artistic aspects, what's your process for creating a new piece of Burlesque?

MSC: Earlier you asked about, you know, how I Burlesque, and I think that comes back to this question. It's like a timeline of my life.So how I'm feeling a 00:22:00certain season or certain month or show really dictates my creative process. If I'm going through a break-up or if I'm in love or if, you know, I got a dent in my car, or whatever, I kind of find a song or an inspiration based off of something that I'm seeing or something I'm really into at the moment. I just take that and run with it. I have an example actually: so I do an act, Hot For Teacher, a Van Halen song and I didn't really like Van Halen at al,l but I woke up one night like I was in a panic and I like a teacher routine and I wonder if there's any songs about sexy teacher. First I found the awesome song by Van Halen Hot for Teacher and it's my favorite thing to dance to. At that time I 00:23:00think I was just really into school and I was doing stuff and like feeling sexy teacher vibes. So it is just a process of where I'm at. The coming up show we have is a car show and it's all car themed. So I've just been looking into car songs and it's just kind of like when the beat hits you right, it's all about music to me. So as soon as I find music, I create a costume concept off a song that I really love.

LK: You've talked a little about Burlesque having that strong do-it-yourself aspect. Where do you get your costumes and props?

MSC: I'll speak for the whole troop on that one because we all make a ton of 00:24:00stuff and it's like a DIY thing. So sometimes I'll go to the thrift store or I'll look online and find a base for a costume, and then from there I'll just explode it. Not to say I haven't just straight-up and bought a costume, but then I don't have time to bedazzle a jumpsuit today or whatever. But for the most part I find joy in either sewing my own or making my own costumes and really going out in the community and finding vintage pieces to add to or to take away from. I just love sewing and creating. Everyone in the troupe is so awesome at that too. It's just like I'm constantly inspired by these beautiful humans around me that just create amazing art. It inspires me to really keep that train going.


LK: There's been a lot of talk recently in the last few years about cultural appropriation. What conversation around cultural appropriation in the Bend, Eastern Oregon area?

MSC: You know this is a super important subject. As a native Oregonian, as someone that comes from a community where there's not a ton of diversity, I would say it's a hard subject to talk about. It's a hard subject to tiptoe around. My personal opinion is... if someone wants to take something from my culture and use it. I'm more than happy to say you're free to use whatever you 00:26:00know of my German Heritage that you want. But I think it's super important to be sensitive and to understand, to try to understand other people's points of view and what their level of acceptance is. In my experience that is a person by person basis. I know there's communities of people that really don't want you culturally appropriating their culture. In that there are voices that don't care and there are people that find it awesome that you're going to share parts of their culture on stage. I think the main thing is not making fun of, or using other cultures or people or diversity in a way that's harmful. To me it's being sensitive to other people and asking questions. But at the end of the day, I do 00:27:00feel like we're all human and we're all on this planet together and so it's okay to pull inspiration as long as you're not being harmful.

LK: You've mentioned the pandemic. I guess we should talk about COVID. How has the pandemic impacted the Burlesque scene and your shows?

MSC: It was... it's been a hard couple years. It impacted shows because we stopped doing shows. We were in the middle of a Burlesque Academy and we are teaching and having other performers come in and do you know guest teaching spots. Right in the middle of that we got shut down, so we didn't like two weeks and had another two or three weeks to go and we just had to stop. It was just too crazy and unknown. So the company went into the [financial] red. It was 00:28:00really hard. It's been a really hard couple years. But the good thing is we're coming out of it and able to perform. Our community and our audiences are always behind us. So it was rough, it's still rough, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

LK: Did you find that it impacted your creativity just having a pandemic going on?

MSC: Hugely! I felt burnt out, to be completely honest. My biggest struggle personally, and until you just asked me that I didn't even really think of it until right now, but I think what happened is I just felt like a little bit of failure surrounding keeping my community together. Because, you know, we have 00:29:00this huge troupe and we used to meet all the time and really be collaborative. Then COVID throws a wrench in everything and we can't meet and we can't see each other and we can't hug and touch and create art and costumes. To me it totally burnt me out. I was kind of just in a creative rut and I'm starting to just climb out of it. But I feel like that was not performing, and not having your energy, of your audience, and of your community, really sucked for lack of a better term.

LK: You referenced Eastern Oregon or the Bend area is not very diverse. What's your experience around that? Do you recruit for diversity? Do you recruit teachers who are more diverse to come teach? How do you handle that?


MSC: That's been coming up a lot in conversation over the last couple years. Probably of really being on the forefront of that. I think, you know, with #BlackLivesMatter and BIPOC and just really creating a community that's inclusive. I think it's really important to do outreach. In this certain demographic [Bend] area, It's sometimes a little difficult and bringing people in is a little difficult. But you know I think a good goal for everybody should really be to create more inclusively. I'm always open to learning and understanding how to do that. But you know for now, I think just putting out open auditions and everyone is welcome and really trying to just get people in and create more in a bigger community and reaching out to performers in other 00:31:00cities and in trying to get people here is, I think it's really important. And you know we have such a huge troupe, I feel like there's a little bit of diversity in our troupe, but we need more. We all need more in Oregon, so you know we're working on it. I feel optimistic that we're going to get there and create a bigger family and community, hopefully a more diverse one.

LK: People in Burlesque say it empowers them, what's your take on that?

MSC: One hundred percent accurate! Super empowering! It's one of the reasons I'm really attracted to it. It's confidence-building. It is empowering. It's about taking control of your sexuality and expression and art, and pushing that to 00:32:00your audience. You're wearing it on your sleeve. I think, too, you're in a very vulnerable position. It's really difficult to be half naked or mostly naked onstage. To have a weird routine you're not sure how people are going to take or a funky costume. So it is empowering to be able to take those parts of you and put them out there. It's amazing.

LK: People also talked about how... Or, people in Burlesque how Burlesque can be a force for social change. Do you see that in Bend?

MSC: Yeah I do. Even just talk about diversity and cultural appropriation and politics and making fun of politics and current events. It's totally 00:33:00encompassing with social change. It's a huge platform to talk about important things. Things that really matter. You have an audience, you have a stage, and you have cell phones, and YouTube, and all of this stuff, so you can create a message and share it and put it out there. I think it's really important, especially this art form, to me, is a little fringy. It's not the opera and it's not theater and it's not, you know, going and sitting in a big theater and listening quietly to the orchestra. It's funny and loud and crazy. It can be, what's the word I'm looking for, it can be jarring and I think it should be! I 00:34:00think that creates action and it does create social change. You should be uncomfortable. Art can make you uncomfortable sometimes, just like it can make you happy or cry or you know, moved.

LK: What are the challenges facing Burlesque today?

MSC: Now going back to it is kind of an alternative art form. So I think, conservatively speaking, it's probably not looked upon in the most exuberant light. I think that might be something of a challenge. But I mean honestly, I don't know... there's so many amazing beautiful people that are creating this insane art form with immaculate costumes and really crazy fun stuff-- challenge accepted! I think Burlesque is just going to keep pushing through. It's really 00:35:00made this big comeback and I haven't seen it slow down in the last 10 years. So I think it's whatever challenge we face on that front, it's just... you just keep pushing through it.

LK: The final question, what do you wish the general public would understand about Burlesque?

MSC: Yeah, the empowerment thing, probably, and confidence, self confidence, self love. I just taught a class at Burning Man the other day and I had a class full of super confident, very sexy, happy people. And I still had people come up to me afterwards and just be like "well I didn't know I needed to express myself this way." Something that we teach in class a lot, too, is it's not about what 00:36:00your audience is feeling and thinking and seeing. It's you first. If you're taking the glove off, I'm going to take this glove off to me in a way that makes me feel sexy and makes me feel confident and empowered and beautiful. If my audience likes that, I'm doing a good job, right? I'm feeling myself. My audience is feeling what I'm doing too. So I think the biggest thing is just understanding that it's not not as fringy and as outsider as we might think. It's really just a form of art that might not be for everybody, but it certainly creates a home and community for a lot of people. And the inclusivity and the community that it creates is so important. I think that's what I'd say.


LK: Thank you so much.