“Hi, my name’s GLOW.”
A hazy figure approaches whipping neon glow sticks like Bruce Lee during a nunchucks demonstration. When the electro-induced trance subsides, a svelte, attractive brunette is revealed. She’s wearing furry leg warmers, shiny latex leggings, and a yellow SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt. Her arms are lined with handmade candy-and-glow-stick bracelets, and a glow-stick earring is dangling from her left ear.
“It’s my rave name,” Glow says. “I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m expecting something amazing with really crazy lights. My friend convinced me to go and just said, ‘Expect something really big!’”
Glow is gracing the dance floor of New York City’s famed Hammerstein Ballroom for Cosmic Opera—a mysterious fusion of electronic dance music and opera billed as an “extrasensory dance event series” and boasting the ebullient tagline: “BE THEATRICAL. DRESS THEATRICAL. LIVE THEATRICAL.” Axwell (real name: Axel Christofer Hedfors), an acclaimed DJ who represents one third of the renowned Swedish house-music group Swedish House Mafia, curated the two-night, sold-out event, which comes on the heels of Swedish House Mafia’s historic headlining show at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 16. The group became the first electronic act to headline—and sell out—“The World’s Most Famous Arena,” serving as further evidence, along with the recent three Grammy wins by dubstep DJ Skrillex, that dance music is all the rage Stateside.
“If you watch Beyoncé you are completely blown away with how she looks and how she moves and you are too busy watching her so that stops you from dancing on your own or participating,” Axwell, 34, told The Daily Beast. “The main thing [with EDM] is to dance, but 10 years ago, I could never have imagined it becoming as big as this.”
Tonight’s event promises to be something completely different. Six months ago, a young entrepreneur from Long Island named Justin Cohen approached Axwell about creating a unique dance series that fused the burgeoning EDM scene with the epic sweep of an opera. The result is Cosmic Opera, which begins with two nights of shows at Hammerstein Ballroom, followed by two more events in April and May.
“They were the highest musical art form, and I felt today’s generation needed a new form of opera,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. “So with dance music at its new height of popularity, it seemed like it could be a great combination.”
“We both wanted to create a new brand of events for fans and music lovers that was different, collaborative, and exciting,” adds Axwell.
9:30 p.m. People are slowly filing into Hammerstein Ballroom. Above the dance floor, there’s a gigantic, three-tiered chandelier draped in glittering streamers. It has the feel of a prom for the EDM set. Several men are dressed in white hockey masks like Casey Jones from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Meanwhile, hordes of young, attractive girls in barely there clothing claim their dancing spots. Off to the side is a pair of Wall Street types in expensive suits with pocket squares. Dance music appeals to all types, it seems.
9:50 p.m. Opening act NO_ID takes the stage. They’re an electronic music duo from Amsterdam that are favorites of Axwell. It takes about 30 minutes for their set to pick up steam, but when it does, the crowd from above resembles a thrashing orgy of hedonistic pretty young things brimming with hormonal energy. Green and blue lasers are beamed from the stage to the balcony, bisecting the ballroom into a plethora of quadrants like an Ocean’s Eleven-esque security system. Quite a few young women in the crowd are sucking on pacifiers—a throwback of sorts to the dance scene's warehouse-rave roots.
10:50 p.m. At the conclusion of the NO_ID set, a trio of burlesque dancers perform a Cirque du Soleil-like routine, ascending long vertical sheets high above the crowd before swinging, flipping, and gliding down to just a few feet above their audience’s extended hands.
11:05 p.m. The Day-Glo baton is passed on to the night’s second act, Deniz Koyu, a progressive house DJ and favorite of Swedish House Mafia’s Sebastian Ingrosso, who called him “a big time talent.” The shimmering keys from the Fray’s “How to Save a Life” drop into a dirty house beat pulsating with bass. Other highlights include a raunchy remix of Justice’s “We Are Your Friends,” with slingshots out of nowhere into dizzying electro swirls. I spot Glow dancing in a circle, her eyes closed in an apparent state of euphoria.
12:10 a.m. A disco ball lowers from the oversized chandelier that, when illuminated with flashing purple LED strobes, resembles the alien spacecrafts that hover over various U.S. landmarks in Independence Day. “It really ties the room together,” as Lebowski would say. Meanwhile, a laser spinning on the ceiling is creating a cool Spin Art effect. Deniz Koyu plays an insane remix of “Intro” by the Xx. People are now crowd surfing.
12:35 a.m. When Koyu finishes his set, a Kabuki-faced opera singer emerges on the upper balcony wearing a silver headpiece and neon blue gown. She removes her gown to reveal a glittery bodysuit, and is carried to the stage through the crowd on an elevated platform like a gigantic hoverboard, while dancers in silver latex bodysuits dance onstage behind her.
12:45 a.m. The Cosmic Opera stage set splits in half to reveal Axwell behind a DJ booth comprised entirely of organ pipes. Reflective mirrors are situated behind him so the crowd can see not only themselves, but also all of Axwell’s manic DJing skills. He opens his set with “In My Mind”—one of his most popular remixes. “I feel like I’m in a Joel Schumacher Batman film,” says my smiling friend. He means that in a good way.
1:25 a.m. The show has become a full-blown laser spectacular to the point where one feels like they’re in the movie Tron. Five vertical cannons onstage explode with bursts of smoke. A circular white screen behind Axwell’s DJ booth projects at different times: swirling, multicolored objects of varying shapes and sizes, the cosmos, and shimmering stars. Occasionally, Axwell raises his hands high in the air like an electro conductor, basking in his power over the crowd.
1:45 a.m. The dance floor is now jam-packed—and incredibly hot thanks to all the heat radiating off all the lithe, sweaty bodies. It’s become abundantly clear that the big reason dance music has become so immensely popular Stateside is because it’s become the stress-reliever of choice for scantily clad, attractive, physically fit young women. Several of Axwell’s tunes have the crowd chanting along like soccer-stadium anthems. This night is resembling the Bosch triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights”—minus, you know, all the killing and maiming in the right panel.
2:45 a.m. That’s a wrap! Everyone is fittingly exhausted. “It was fuckin' awesome!” yells a 22-year-old named Danielle outside the venue. “Everyone just felt more connected,” adds her friend Tara, also 22.
“EDM is not meant to be a spectator sport, but a participatory genre—most people can't help themselves from dancing once they pick up on the beat,” said Justin Cohen, the event’s producer. “I also think the whole economic downturn had somewhat of a hand to play in its rise. People are looking for a way to get away from depressing news and all the stress and strain of what they've had to deal with these past four years. If you go to a dance music event, any dance-music event, you'll find a crowd of people smiling. People need that these days.”