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About this Piece

Composed: 1985
Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bell tree, castanets, claves, crotales, cymbals [crash, hi-hat, suspended, suspended sizzle], pedal bass drum, snare drum, glockenspiel, sandpaper blocks, tambourine, triangle, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone), harp, piano, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 31, 1986 (Ojai Festival), Stephen Mosko conducting

The Chairman Dances is a “foxtrot for orchestra” that Adams composed while working on his opera Nixon in China. In the composer’s words: “The music is not part of the opera (which is both stylistically and instrumentally quite different from it), but rather a separate response – a purely musical one – to the irresistible image of a youthful Mao Tse-Tung dancing the foxtrot with his mistress Chiang Ch’ing, former B-movie queen and the future Madame Mao, the mind and spirit behind the Cultural Revolution and the strident, unrehabilitated member of the Gang of Four.”

True to the time of its composition (1985), the music is representative of a combination of minimalist iterations (and re-iterations) and stylized pseudo jazz inflections, chugging rhythms, and colorful orchestration and diatonic harmonies. 

The scenario, as published in the score, is as follows:

“Chiang Ch’ing, aka The White-Boned Demon, aka 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 to 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, on the Long March, dancing to the gramophone…”

— Steven Lacoste