Sensation’s Lukewarm Ocean of White Stops in Las Vegas: Review

Sensation Las Vegas
Courtesy of Sensation

On the second of its four-city fall tour, Sensation, the EDM concept concert from Belgian promoter and recent SFX acquisition ID&T, brought its Ocean of White theme to the MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas (Oct. 5). By de-emphasizing the DJ talent and pulling focus on its own concept, Sensation sought to upend the trends of the exploding American dance music market, but instead, they made a spectacle unto its own.

Sensation’s talent rotates with each city: Las Vegas featured music from Michael Woods, Sunnery James & Ryan Marciano and Sébastian Léger. The next two events in Miami (Oct 12) and Brooklyn (Oct 26) will both feature Fedde Le Grand and Nic Fanciulli with Prok & Fitch replacing James & Marciano in Miami. At these and each of its previous stateside iterations – Brooklyn in 2012, Toronto and Oakland earlier this year – Sensation has eschewed convention by booking lesser-known talent and stipulating an all-white dress code for concertgoers in service of its white ocean theme.

Particularly in Vegas, where DJs’ faces flank billboards, taxis and sides of buildings, the lack of a big name led to underwhelming attendance, which could be felt that night. While it meant there was space to move on the dancefloor and even more still in the Arena’s stadium seating, it also felt more casual than say, a sold-out residency at Hakkasan on the other side of the MGM building.

Parties with an all-white dress code aren’t an entirely new thing in the States; they’re the cornerstone of gay circuit party weekends and P Diddy’s Hamptons event schedule. But the biggest festivals in the US market today pride themselves on their customers’ enthusiasm for self-expression via their rave outfits. Warnings that failure to comply would result in denial of admission meant that everyone readily wore head to toe white (though a few men donned khakis, anyone that’s tried to buy white pants in October could hardly blame them).

Despite some white angel wings, feather headdresses, and a smattering of neon flare (accessories and shoes were allowed to be non-white) the Sensation uniform meant that attendees looked like they could have been attending either Diner en Blanc or an Amma ministry, voiding the crowd of the character or personality that an American EDM show typically has. This gave the room a unique look, but it also guided the crowd’s attention to where organizers wanted it to be: on the event itself.

The giant orbs and translucent jellyfish hanging from the rafters signified a formidable investment on the part of the promoters while alluding to the oceanic theme. A runway of shooting fountains in the middle of the floor and the Sensation-branded life preservers around the sides of the room kept up the aquatic references, but the conceit never seemed fully realized. Perhaps in smaller markets this level of production would be impressive, but in Las Vegas, it fell short of Cirque-level wow-factor. Though it demonstrated considerable scale, it even missed the bar in technological innovations set by individual artists touring this fall. That’s not to say Sensation’s staging isn’t good, it’s just not competitive with the North American EDM market in 2013.

If an event is to stake its claim on artistry over commercial pandering, as Sensation could be seen as doing, it would be reasonable to ask for the DJs to participate. While Sebastian Leger’s brooding progressive trance set struck the right vibe at the right hour, whirling the crowd into waves of lush beats and vibes, James & Marciano’s stampede through EDM hits du jour watered down Leger’s good work, reverting the room to a typical festival soundscape. Perhaps due to the physical distance between the white-clad DJs and the white-clad crowd – the slowly rotating circular DJ booth was far and above the heads of the people on the dancefloor – there wasn’t much engaging the two entities.

Accordingly when James & Marciano got a lukewarm response to their sing-along for Zedd’s “Clarity,” they remained undeterred and tried again twenty minutes later on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” with equally tepid results. Woods’ set was mercifully less mainstream, showcasing the producer/DJ’s technical prowess and personal approach to hard house music – a serviceable performance at a time when the production and circumstance led the crowd to expect a mind-blowing one.

In the most out-of-touch moment of the evening, a team of dancers strutted through the fountains flanking the DJ booth during Woods’ set where they sloppily executed a routine that seemed to have been choreographed by Nomi Malone herself, ending with them stripping, naturally. Why anyone thought this was necessary or in keeping with the motif of the event is as mystifying as the European spellings used in the on-screen interstitial segues between DJs.

None of this is to say Sensation isn’t a quality event. From security to sound, ID&T execute with precision, punctuality and panache, demonstrating a level of expertise and experience American promoters would be wise to heed. But in a season of reportedly sluggish sales for all EDM tours (from which Sensation was not exempt), it is no longer passable to repeat concepts from previous years or rely on an insatiable appetite of the young and spend-happy dance music American consumer. In this regard, the product that is Sensation tells the story of America’s nascent EDM culture through inversion. Luckily for all, it’s a tale whose end has yet to be written.