About this work
John Adams' The Chairman Dances is a "foxtrot for orchestra" that emerged as an offshoot of the composer's 1986 opera Nixon in China and has become one of the composer's most popular works. The opera, which presents a fanciful account of the 1972 visit to China by President Richard Nixon and his entourage (including wife Pat and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger), made a profound, lingering impression upon audiences that few operas of the late twentieth century ever had. Certainly one important contributor to this response is the peculiar immediacy of the work. The faces one sees onstage are both real and familiar. Even as the opening-night crowd gasped with delight as the mock-up of Air Force One descended to the stage, the real Richard Nixon continued the post-Watergate rehabilitation of his image, wearing his elder statesmanship like a pair of battered, comfortable slippers and lunching on the terrace at San Clemente with Pat. Henry Kissinger enjoyed a similar status, while Madame Mao, thousands of miles away, considered her role in the Cultural Revolution from her prison cell. A like familiarity and intimacy informs the opera's third act -- which is the direct source of The Chairman Dances -- in which protocol and ceremony are forgotten as the audience is led into the apparent privacy of the characters' bedrooms to hear their intimate discussions. Each sings of his or her current personal concerns, while at some level the couples (Dick and Pat, Chairman and Madam Mao) connect with each other on the emotional plane of nostalgia. The Nixons reminisce about their early, pre-public married lives: a time of groceries and slipcovers for Pat, of five-card stud and military service for Dick. The Maos look back to their youthful idealism and budding romance, and foxtrot together, for old times' sake, to the wistful tune that forms the basis of this composition. The chugging and coloristic flashes that begin the work give way to the dance theme proper in the strings, the piano eventually emerging both as participant in and a source of commentary upon the proceedings. The work "runs out" instead of ending, as though in imitation of the hand-wound gramophone which had accompanied the dancing of the Maos in earlier, and perhaps less complicated and foreboding, times.