Seeing upstate electro-poppers Leverage Models live is like watching a fireworks display. Frontman Shannon Fields is a powder keg of nervous energy, belting words through a megaphone, jangling a tambourine, and flailing through the crowd. He doesn’t dance so much as combust. The unbridled gusto is partially inspired by the tent revivals Fields attended in his youth, where worshippers spoke in tongues. “I have nothing to do with that belief system anymore,” he says, “[but] there’s something physically and emotionally that I carry with me, kind of my default mode.”
Fields’s exodus from the faith involved an element most don’t: butoh. Isolated in a deeply religious Pentecostal community, a teenage Fields came across photos of pioneering performer Tanaka Min in a Japanese magazine he was using for a school assignment. Tanaka wore little but white body paint, contorting his vulnerable body in public spaces. “It felt like looking at a kind of porn,” but without the guilt and shame that his upbringing attached to desire, says Fields. “I felt embarrassed and confused and excited by it. Not sexually, but artistically. My imagination went supernova.”
Butoh is how Fields learned art could use abstraction to reach emotional truth, but its influence on Leverage Models has not been explicit — until today. The Village Voice is pleased to post the exclusive premiere of the band’s video for their new song “Senators,” which features choreography from butoh performer Vangeline France.
“Senators” began as a way for Fields to confront his discomfort in social situations. He observed the transactional, getting-to-know-you conversations going on around him and started writing snippets of dialogue, which he turned into disjointed lyrics. “I’m paralyzed by small talk, and interested and fascinated in it because of that,” he says. “There’s something obviously political about that [transactional] way of having a conversation. That simple, declarative language seemed like the language of government, the language of business – powerful, direct.”
This image of polished professionals became the inspiration for the “Senators” video. As he was falling asleep one night, Fields envisioned himself and Alena Spanger, the other singer in “Senators,” in an exaggerated debate. “People in a business negation use control in their facial expressions and bodies to project power,” says Fields. “All of a sudden I thought, ‘Oh, this is butoh!’ — the way that form of dance abstracts the body and finds a sort of dream logic.”
But Fields didn’t know any performers, so a friend connected him with Vangeline, a French-American butoh dancer and the founder of Vangeline Theater and the New York Butoh Institute. Like Fields, she came to butoh unexpectedly, when a friend took her to BAM to see internationally renowned butoh troupe Sankai Juku. Butoh’s acknowledgement of darkness spoke to her. “We all have [primitive] energies inside of us, [but] most of us have been socialized to repress them,” Vangeline says. “In butoh we give them an arbitrary expression…. We’re giving a voice to the Genie in the bottle, and then [putting] it back in.”
To make the video, Vangeline and one of her principal dancers, Azumi Oe, worked through long takes to keep their almost imperceptible movements authentic despite wearing the less-than-authentic costume of contemporary business suits. Their tension mirrors the stilted mannerisms of family dinners or first dates, and as the video progresses, flickers of surreal, traditional butoh encroach upon this modern scene, all gnarled limbs and ashen makeup. This is the brilliance of the video: It reflects the sinister, or at least uncomfortable, truths that can lie just beneath the surface of our social interactions. Both butoh and the song itself operate on subconscious levels, and if neither makes sense at first, the merging of Fields’s and Vangeline’s mediums brings the purpose of both into sharp focus.
It was a collaboration of like-minded artists. “He pushes himself to the limit of what is socially acceptable,” Vangeline says of Fields’s unbridled performance style, which is visually the polar opposite of butoh but philosophically similar. “There’s something in him that is fearless; he doesn’t mind making himself uncomfortable. That’s such an important part of the work that we do – we have to be willing to be uncomfortable.”
Leverage Models play Good Room on May 3. Click here for more information and tickets.