02/05/2015 09:19 EST | Updated 04/07/2015 05:59 EDT

Lang Lang PuSh Festival show explores piano ownership and worship in China

An unusual recital, Lang (Lang)guage, will feature at Vancouver's PuSH festival on Thursday night, exploring the status of the piano in Chinese culture through the skyrocketing career of China’s most famous pianist, Lang Lang.

Part performance, part installation, the piece was created by Hong Kong Exile, a group of three artists who were born in Canada but have Chinese origins.

They were just setting up in preparation for Thursday's performance, when I dropped by.

Milton Lim, the show's director, says while the piano is regarded as a very Western instrument, "it was a symbol of hard work and ethic."

Once Lang Lang came on the scene, he says, "it explodes a lot more. He's an example of what you can do... if you work really hard."

"It represents a type of class, and now the piano is also used as a type of furniture."

'People pressured to play piano'

The piece was inspired by the personal lives of the artists. Lim’s collaborators, Remy Siu and Natalie Gan, both played the piano while they were growing up.

Siu says, "I've noticed myself, in my own life, where people are pressured to play the piano."

He says while children practise and compete at recitals, very few of them will become as successful as Lang Lang, despite the pressure and hard work.

During the performance, a keyboard sits on stage and audience members are invited to press the keys. Each time a key is pressed, a corresponding clip will play on the screen, explained Siu.

Those clips span the career of Lang Lang, from his early days on stage as a child, to his current rock star status.

In one clip, he is playing the grand piano in a massive arena while skaters perform around him on the ice, as screaming fans look on.

Some clips chronicle other piano players competing at recitals with ambitions of becoming the next Lang Lang, and still others look at the piano-making industry in China.

Consequences of Lang Lang's influence

​Talking to Lim and Siu took me back to my childhood, when I was forced to sit and practice the piano daily, in the hopes that I might become an impresario and make my parents proud.

I also remember the nerve-wracking experience of attending competitions and being graded and ranked by dispassionate judges. It's part of what spoke to me about this show, as I watched the clips play.

Lim explains that they also provide sheet music, so visitors can play a sequence of notes to experience a chronological story.

In the final moments, Natalie Gan will sit down at the keyboard and give a performance that gives viewers a narrative to follow as they ponder the influence and impact of Lang Lang.

Eating the Game

Lang (Lang)guage works in tandem with their second piece, Eating the Game, says Lim. 

Eating the Game is set up as a keynote speech about Asian foreign property investment, the state of the arts in Vancouver, and business and culture.

Lim says it's "a bigger discussion about what's happening with money going between the East and the West with foreign real estate."

Lim says both works are about exploring the contradictions in the uneasy relationship between East and West, and the nuances of that relationship strike pretty close to home for the members of Hong Kong Exile.

It's the commonalities and the contradictions that the artists hope to give voice to, in future projects.

Lang (Lang)guage and Eating the Game are at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, at Performance Works, on February 5 starting at 7 p.m. PT.