John Adams emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century as one of the most influential and widely performed American composers since Copland. 'The Chairman Dances' is a 'foxtrot for orchestra' that emerged as an offshoot of the composer's 1986 political opera 'Nixon in China'. It has become one of the composer's most popular works.
In this piece, from the third act of the Opera, 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. The Maos look back to their youthful idealism and budding romance, and foxtrot together 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 work 'runs out' instead of ending, in imitation of the hand-wound gramophone which had accompanied the dancing of the Maos in earlier, happier times.
First performed in January 1986 by the Milwaukee Smphony Orchestra, the piece was commissioned by the National Endowment For The Arts.