The Chairman Dances

foxtrot for orchestra (1985)

John Adams on The Chairman Dances

The Chairman Dances was an “out-take” of Act III of Nixon in China. Neither an “excerpt” nor a “fantasy on themes from,” it was in fact a kind of warmup for embraking on the creation of the full opera. At the time, 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony, but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon in China, I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece. So The Chairman Dances began as a “foxtrot” for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled “Madame Mao,” firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, to “come down, old man, and dance.” The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives. Some of these themes make a dreamy reappearance in Act III of the actual opera, en revenant, as both the Nixons and Maos reminisce over their distant pasts. A scenario by Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, somewhat altered from the final one in Nixon in China, is as follows:

“Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall, and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone…”

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Commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Milwaukee Symphony

First performed January 31, 1986 by the Milwaukee Symphony, Lukas Foss, conductor.

2 flutes (both doubling picc.), 2 oboes, 2 Bb clarinets (2nd doubles bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 Bb trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, piano, harp, strings

Duration: 12 minutes

Publisher: Associated Music Publishers (G. Schirmer)



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