The trip there is in some beaten-up taxi I almost call ‘archaic’, yet the meter works … until the journey’s end when the driver turns it off and claims sabotage. An expensive ride. White, white, white, mostly Dutch, some German, no British accents yet. The Amsterdam Arena is one I see from my childhood: Champions League Wednesday night football, the 1994/5 Ajax team of Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf et al. that triumphed in Vienna against A.C. Milan.
Security search, complementary basket at the entrance inviting you to feed it drugs. No one seems ‘wasted’ or ‘out of it’. It’s some spectacle, a mosaic clash of white casual reveller wear, and dark, sleek suits for security, rigid dress codes for the occasion. I head inside to find kiosks adorning the walkway, queues for toilets, members of staff selling pre-loaded swipe cards, all the time rumbling and ambience getting louder from the arena’s core. Security guards chatter by stair entrances, and put out the occasional cigarette of an unaware-of-the-rules visitor.
The epicentre: Masses, strobe, piñatas, glow sticks, deep vocal announcements, floor packed, seating area behind this perch-like minimalist décor amidst the ostentation. The DJs are stood at the top of a cube in the centre of the dance floor, with burlesque (I think) and erotic dancers occupying its various levels, some dangling from transparent wires, no doubt suspended by the sensation of the event. Dutch people are incredibly tall, Dutch women are incredibly beautiful.
Things seem to be approaching a melodic introduction. Vodka and coke. I prop my feet up on the seat in front. Beyond that is a VIP section of champagne-sipping dancers grooving out of sync in what appears to be a completely different aural and visual narrative to that engulfing the rest of the arena.
That grinding space shuttle launch sound again, this time accompanied by dark, light, then dark, then lots of lights, then balloons and confetti, then more dark, red, a beat, drums, louder beat, louder, and now a voice, the female trance omniscience that transcends pithy discussions over who’s the best Van. It’s on, one presumes.
A few hundred yards to the left I see there’s a cocktail bar lit up like a laser-themed hotel on the road to Vegas, bright buckets of ice, its patrons clutching blue and pink glasses, taking a chilled breather already. I expect to be served by a polite talking robot when I eventually make it down there.
I’m informed that there’s a Sensation in almost every trance-inclined country in the world- one in Russia, one in Brazil, a Sensation Black. I am to watch a documentary about how Sensation first came into being, its genesis and what goes into its making every year. I imagine an Apollonian dedication to putting all the pieces together before a tragic utopia of music, alcohol, and mind-perplexing substances. I’m saying this to someone who just nods in return. I’m not sure I’m even being understood, or whether I make sense.
At the back of the arena stand the ‘temps’, some of them drooling, others just so far into their own realm they may as well be on the dance floor, and probably think they are. A man’s ejected by the stewards for approaching people in a way that looks like a drugs sales pitch. There’s some urine on the floor. I can smell onions. There’s a woman making wolf noises. I escape. The card’s not swiping. “Please try it again,” she ventures. I do so. Success culminates in a warm beer in a small plastic cup, a third of it spilled on my now not white attire by the time I escape the madding crowd around the pub/van hybrid. Eerie, silence, no one in the distance through the window mesh, only a train station, some trees and bushes.
The most hideous bathroom experience in quite some time. Like cattle, lines of odour brush up against one another. I look down at the floor and make no eye contact. Odious smell, I place an imaginary peg on my nose. I eventually make it to the sink. Utter relief, so much so I nearly urinate again. I make it out and breathe clean oxygen.
I’m back in the arena’s centre. People are blowing bubbles, masks are dropping out of the ceiling and changing their physiognomy, screaming is coming from somewhere. It’s an Edvard Munch rave. Meticulous build up to a crescendo, lights and music in parallel synthesised to a rhythmic thud, then total silence, darkness. Collective anticipation. BOOM. Fittings shaking, missiles flying, discs spinning on stage, DJs immersed in fury, dancers feeling the euphoria, blissfully lost in their own transcendental performance art. Capturing devices, iPhones shooting video. A stranger’s sweat catches me in the eye as I’m recording the near-acrobatics. Kamikaze TV cameras swoop overhead and almost hit me. I’m then barraged by a massive ball.
I run away to the cocktail bar and order a drink named Sensation. I drink it. It’s not sensational, but it’s not terrible. I buy some more and watch the show. I am now not aware of what time it is. I might have been standing here for a while because there’s sunlight everywhere. The people are vacating. The arena now resembles an indoor judo hall; white, nonetheless. I figure it’s been eight hours since I arrived. I bring out my phone, review some photographs, and send a few text messages in an attempt to make contact with the outside world.
MC Gee, the Sensation announcer, introduces the final act. The music is much better than everything that’s gone before. There’s less of the incessant beat repetition, and more actual tunes I recognise. It is, I dare say, more commercial. I curse the scheduling and whoever decided to put this on last.
My eyes are sinking; more energy drink locks them open in a vice, arms artificially unstiffen themselves. She’s saying something to me and I try and lip read to no avail. I wander away and find myself beside a large garbage bin that understandably stinks. Beyond it, just by an entrance, a woman is crying on a man’s shoulder. He isn’t taking his shades off. It’s quite a portrait, and only my awareness of my creepy voyeurism stops me from filming it.
Chatter about a train. It’s the right moment. I vacate the scene. A rainbow blazes across the morning marsh as the sunlight hits my eyes. Walking off from the arena I glance around to see a football game being played beneath it with a bottle of Coca-Cola. Station: everyone is still white. Arguments over machines and tickets. Escalator. Train to Centraal Station. A guy announces he’s from Utrecht and promptly chases a firefly around the carriage, blithely eating it, then telling everyone he supports “Sheffield Tuesday”.
At Centraal Station it’s still white. Damrak, no trams running. In Vondelpark I sit by a fountain for a quick rest, noticing my formerly white shoes and trousers are covered in thick mud. I take out my headphones and walk back to the hotel around the corner, skipping 20-odd Armin van Buuren tracks before I ludicrously settle upon a Philip Glass piece from the film Koyaanisqatsi. I wake up 11 hours later to find I have a Hannibal Lecter-like Sensation paper mask in my pocket. Lovely.