There's no question that dance music is in high demand right now. Event promoters are scrambling to cash in on the newfound interest in artists like dubstep DJ Skrillex, who will play upwards of 300 gigs in 2012. But it's no longer enough just to throw a sweaty, speaker-rattling rave; with so much competition for fans' ticket dollars, organizers have begun using clever gambits to set their shows apart. January's Holy Ship!, for example, was a three-day dance music festival that happened to be set aboard a Caribbean cruise.
Cosmic Opera, a two-night show at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom, was the latest in this onslaught of novel concert ideas. It was billed as the first chapter in an "extrasensory dance event series," a blend of the dazzling modern technology behind EDM concerts and the Broadway-caliber spectacle evoked by the historic venue. 3D projection techniques were used to cast haunting images on the walls of the venue while costumed actors gave the night a storyline. Axwell, one-third of the dance supergroup Swedish House Mafia, was slated to serve as the show's conductor, not only spinning a DJ set but overseeing the night's performances as well.
Despite the hype – a months-long social media campaign promised an event to rival all dance events – Cosmic Opera failed to deliver on many of its grand promises. The planned "opera" elements of the show were largely absent, save for Axwell's pipe organ-inspired DJ booth and occasional appearances onstage by a baton-toting "maestro." To introduce Axwell's performance, a lavishly-dressed opera singer descended from one of Hammerstein's balconies for a dramatic, though lengthy, number that briefly amused the bass-hungry fans. Aerial acrobats swung from draped cloths in Cirque du Soleil-inspired interludes between each DJ act, but the expected actors, dancers and orchestra members were nowhere to be found.
What Cosmic Opera did right, however, was to push boundaries with the lights and lasers so often seen at dance shows. A massive chandelier-shaped truss hung from Hammerstein's tall ceilings into the center of the room, and bright lights hit it from all angles. Hundreds of rainbow-hued lasers fired in sync with the music as well. They blanketed the room in thrilling waves of color and shot through the frequent billows of smoke. The room's surfaces all became canvases for high-tech 3D projections, so the balconies appeared to undulate with the beats.
And then, of course, there was the music itself. For all its attempted excess, Cosmic Opera succeeded simply on the strength of its talent roster. German DJ Thomas Gold fired up the crowd with his inventive mash-ups, culminating in his explosive remix of Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain." Axwell built on Gold's momentum; he expertly used each song's build-up and euphoric culminating drop to maximum effect, controlling the crowd for the length of his nearly three-hour set. The Swedish DJ began the performance with his most recent remix, the soaring, emotional "In My Mind," which got fans singing right away. Similarly evocative lyrics – Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherside" and Coldplay's "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" – offset pounding basslines and piano melodies. Unexpected elements, like the riff from Daft Punk's "Robot Rock," livened up the driving four-on-the-floor beats.
Equally unexpected was the imitation snow that fell from the ceiling for a fleeting moment at the end of Axwell's final song. It was a small touch, to be sure, but it invigorated the crowd after nearly six hours of dancing. The lesson for Cosmic Opera's coordinators, as they head into two more two-night stints in April and May, is clear: big promises to alter the dance music landscape will be less successful than well-executed attempts to improve parts of the tried-and-true format. Opera singers or not, people just want to dance.