The Kennedy Center

The Chairman Dances

About the Work

John Adams Composer: John Adams
© Thomas May

Our dance-themed program kicks off with one of the best-known short concert pieces by John Adams (born in 1947). Appropriately, the work of this leading American composer is well known to the National Symphony Orchestra, which has also worked closely with Adams as a conductor. And it's no accident that choreographers are magnetized by John Adams. With its intense and complexly layered rhythmic drive, his work "is music of action as well as contemplation," according to frequent collaborator and director Peter Sellars - and "dance is the most direct action."

Mark Morris's choreography to Nixon in China, the composer's debut opera from 1987 - and a work to which The Chairman Dances is closely related - is just one example of the way in which dance is integrated into Adams's stage works. In addition, many of this composer's orchestral and instrumental pieces have inspired artists from the realm of dance. When the NSO programmed his First Violin Concerto as part of its NEW MOVES Festival last year, their performance featured an innovative use of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage to showcase new choreography to that score by Jessica Lang.


It was Sellars who planted the idea for Nixon in China in the mid-1980s. A pathbreaking work in its own right, Nixon transformed a historic diplomatic event - the eponymous trip made in 1972 by President Nixon to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China - into an epic grand opera about the clash of competing political systems and the ways in which personal and public images of the self get intertwined.


Before immersing himself in the opera project, Adams had to fulfill a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts for the Milwaukee Symphony. He describes The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra as an "outtake," a "kind of warming up" for the opera to come (as opposed to an excerpt or "fantasy on themes from" Nixon in China).

The corresponding scene in the opera that inspired The Chairman Dances finds the political ceremony and grandstanding of the earlier parts of the opera giving way to a mood of elegiac, personal reflection. Chairman Mao and his younger wife, Chiang Ch'ing (a former film and stage actress and a prime mover of the brutally violent Cultural Revolution) begin to dance a foxtrot.

The instrumental style Adams developed for the opera is actually rather different from the palette he uses in The Chairman Dances. In the latter, hints of big band and jazz are slightly disoriented (there has been much drinking) and become fused with Minimalist idioms and Adams's Day-Glo orchestral colors. The result is a cinema-like sonic montage that evokes feelings of surreal nostalgia. "Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at others bravura and bounding," writes Adams, "ride above in a bustling fabric of energized motives."

The actual scenario Adams initially had in mind for this dance was later varied somewhat in its operatic version. Sellars and the poet Alice Goodman, who wrote Nixon's libretto, describe that original scenario 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..."