It happened because Teng, a Michigan-based singer-songwriter, half-jokingly told director Lawrence Chen she wanted to someday dance in a video, even though she knew she'd have to dance badly, since she didn't know how to dance. "What Lawrence latched on to me saying was, 'I've always wanted to dance in a video,' " says Teng, 35.
As Teng steps out of the bedroom scene and into the other people's lives, they — and the world — open up to her in surprising ways. And none of those ways is more surprising than what happens when she encounters the young amputee, played by Tommy Guns Ly, a 24-year-old dancer and founder of the ILL-Abilities crew, who lost his right leg to osteosarcoma as a teenager.
"We had talked about telling different stories of what it means to 'level up,' " Teng says. We thought how cool it would be if we had somebody who embodied that in his life, and Tommy was the perfect person. We were lucky to get him."
Teng funded the Level Up video via a Kickstarter campaign, asking her fans to help her raise $20,000 for the production. She ended up exceeding her goal by a factor of four. The experiment in crowd-funding took Teng completely by surprise — not only that she met her goal but that she met it so quickly.
"I launched the campaign as I was getting on a plane," she says. "It was a five-hour flight across the country. When I landed, it had been fully funded. It kind of kept going after that and became this fan game of giving fans things if we hit certain numbers." She eventually had 1,452 backers contribute $82,460, which not only funded the video but an international tour Teng has planned for 2014. "It ended up being this sort of love-letter correspondence between me and my fans."
In Level Up, which appears on Teng's album Aims, released in September, she sings: "Let your faith die, bring your wonder/Yes, you are only one/No, it is not enough/But if you lift your eyes, I am your brother." For Teng, that lyric reflects the need for acting together, even when you don't know how to solve a problem, even when you don't believe the problem can be solved.
"Humanity may let you down; you may let yourself down," Teng says. "That's not important at the end of the day. What's important is that you have a sense of possibility, that you can look around and be amazed at how far we have come, even though we have farther to go."