Sensation New York: The whiteout before the blackout
Last Sunday night, I couldn’t help but laugh as I began to hand-write my recap of the prior evening’s Sensation show, a lone candle serving as my only source of light. Hurricane Sandy had started its assault on New York City, and my power went out nearly soon as the wind began to howl against my windows. I looked out on the city, bleak and black as far as I could see, and the irony was palpable: less than a day before, I was at one of the brightest, biggest events to ever grace the city.
Sensation became a dance music institution with its very first iteration 12 years ago in Amsterdam; in the years since, the all-white event has touched down throughout Europe, South America and even celebrated New Year's Eve 2008 in Australia. Sensation promoters ID&T bring the same eight-hour extravaganza to each location: it's a sensory overload in the round, an absolute spectacle from start to finish. The crowd surrounds a giant lotus-shaped centerpiece as glowing orbs float overhead and pulsing Euro-house beats fill the air. For countless American dance fans, photos of the shows over the years have amounted to a giant tease, offering a tantalizing look at something too oversized, too exotic even, to ever make its way to the U.S.
However, by late 2011, when ID&T co-founder and CEO Duncan Stutterheim announced that Sensation would finally hit American soil, the event's arrival seemed all but inevitable. Events of Sensation's scale were happening with increasing regularity and record attendance – from Swedish House Mafia's sold-out Madison Square Garden takeover to that year's EDC Las Vegas, which drew over 240,000 fans to the desert over three days. It was only a matter of time before ID&T sought a share of America's newly lucrative EDM event market. But Stutterheim wisely decided not to go it alone in the U.S., partnering with entertainment behemoth Live Nation and claiming Halloween weekend at Brooklyn's brand new Barclays Center. Both ID&T and Live Nation must have known that, to fill the 18,000-person venue during one of New York's most competitive party weekends – twice – they were going to have to offer something truly spectacular. And that they did: Sensation's first foray into the American market by and large brought the magic that fans had been waiting years to experience firsthand.
As terribly cliché as it sounds, the entrance to the Barclays Center was abuzz with excitement and energy as the show began. Something about the all-white dress code created an instant camaraderie among fans, forging a connection absent amid the seas of neon at other dance shows. Entering the arena, the iconic Sensation imagery was the first thing to catch my eye. The overall look of the show – the giant, glowing orbs hanging in rows from the ceiling, the iconic lotus centerpiece – stayed true to the photos I had seen for so many years. But I quickly realized that there are also many details that can't quite be captured in pictures: the way the spheres changed color and moved in time with the music; the smaller lotus structures that dotted the corners of the venue, spewing water and fire in equal measure; the slow rotation of the center lotus, so that the DJ was visible to all; the Cirque de Soleil-like interludes between DJs, one of which featured an opera singer crooning "You've Got The Love;" and of course, the spectacular pyro displays, lasers, and lights that synchronized perfectly with the music.
In terms of Sensation's music, the show was not your average banger-packed dance party, and there was no official "headliner." At the Saturday show I attended, the DJs for the night were Sensation's own Mr. White (also the MC for the evening), Danny Tenaglia, Fedde Le Grand, Mark Knight and 2000 and One – all talented DJs, to be sure, but from its inception Sensation has focused on the experience as a whole as opposed to any one act. The DJs were by no means incidental, but weren't the only or main draw for the night; tickets did, after all, sell out before the talent roster was announced.
To both its credit and detriment, Brooklyn's Sensation stuck with the somewhat minimal, Euro-house sound of its overseas counterparts. In a way, the decision made for a refreshing experience: there's something freeing about not knowing the name of the song to which you're dancing, but loving it anyway. The music's steady pulse was interrupted about a third into Fedde Le Grand's set, when he abandoned his expertly mixed tech-house for more familiar territory: Tiesto and Hardwell's "Zero 76," for example, as well as the oft-played vocals of Cassius "I Love You So," Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso's "Together" and, worst of all, Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know." The track worked well during Miami Music Week, grew tiresome by Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas and felt forced here, an easy ploy to get everyone singing along. Even worse? The otherwise excellent Mark Knight played the song during his set too. (Even Mr. White and 2000 And One were guilty of the same pandering at times, playing Skylar Grey's ubiquitous "Coming Home" vocals and Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child," respectively.)
Aside from those snafus, the crowd was treated to excellent, cohesive sets that featured songs ignored by many DJs: Alex Kenji's "Blue Strobe Light" and Jewelz's' "Toxic Rush," for example. The only complaint I heard (and had myself at times) was that the persistent, techy soundtrack could get too persistent, too repetitive, and started to feel like a tool for triggering the special effects. The tension between Sensation's musical roots and the tastes of U.S. fans is something that ID&T will have to resolve at American events going forward; there's an ideal balance between the two that's tough to find.
Overall, I'm glad to have been part of Sensation's very first U.S. incarnation. There's no question that ID&T and Live Nation spared no expense to deliver a full night of entertainment with top-notch production values. (The perfectly-synced movements of the suspended orbs played and replayed in my mind as I sat in my dark apartment post-power loss, wondering about the event's electricity bill.) Sensation is joining an already crowded, highly competitive market of dance events, particularly in New York. Each big-name show must now be different somehow, with more lasers and LEDs and better, more unique venues; shows at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield and Radio City Music Hall are two recent examples. Once ID&T comes to understand American dance fans and their preferences more fully, Sensation will unquestionably be one of the dominant players in this field.