Outside of Sidney Harman Hall last Thursday evening, Keira Hart Mendoza’s company UpRooted Dance was releasing balloons into the sky.

Titled “What Goes Up Must Come Down,” her piece transformed the sidewalk into a windswept stage, while dancers with balloons clipped to their bodies and hair floated into the Harman’s foyer. It was a delightful, thoughtful exploration of movement, unfolding outside the theater as patrons entered the glassy facility for the fourth annual VelocityDC dance festival.

But inside the Harman’s 800-capacity theater, the show wasn’t nearly as thought-provoking. VelocityDC artistic consultant Peter DiMuro and dancer Adriane Fang stood on stage running down the “Top 10 Reasons VelocityDC is Better Than So You Think You Can Dance.” It was populist to a fault, raising questions about how good VelocityDC really is at showcasing local dance in a meaningful way.

Back in 2009, VelocityDC debuted as a festival that showcased the breadth of dance in D.C., and also placed local artists alongside national and international companies. That year, the festival invited Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner as well as Ronald K. Brown, a brilliant and celebrated artist from New York, to contribute pieces alongside D.C. companies The Washington Ballet, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and CityDance Ensemble. The imposing Harman Hall lent gravitas to local troupes mostly used to performing in more modest spaces. Out of the gate, it felt like a huge boon for D.C. dance.

Since 2009, the festival, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has been retooled as a more insular local showcase. “After that first year,” says WPAS Director of Programming Samantha Pollack, “we realized there was no need to bring in an outside company.” She says the organizers felt “there is such a depth and breadth of D.C. dance companies” that it wasn’t necessary to import talent.

No follower of local dance would argue that D.C.’s dance scene lacks breadth. But what began as a more compact, buzzy showcase in 2009 has expanded into a sprawling, unfocused affair that sometimes stifles artists’ input and doesn’t necessarily achieve its most basic mission: to grow the audience for local dance.

At last week’s festival, which ran from Oct. 18 to Oct. 21, tickets were an approachable $18—priced to lure dance newcomers into the theater. But VelocityDC’s signature main event, a showcase of 10-minute performances from 12 acts, wasn’t doing some artists any favors: The large theater swallowed the specificity and detailed movement of Asanga Domask, one of this town’s most talented artists. Overall, the program was overwhelming and scattered, bouncing from the ballet of George Balanchine to the modern dance of Vincent Thomas to the hip-hop of Urban Artistry in half an hour. That’s great for short attention spans, but the rapid-fire format flattened the works, displaying them without any context and reducing them to a blur of movement set to mostly canned music. By the second half of the two-hour show, audience members were trickling out of the doors.

Yet despite the chaotic arrangement, artists are still willing to participate in VelocityDC for the exposure they believe it offers. Edgeworks company director Helanius J. Wilkins, who has participated every year since 2009, says that’s the festival’s greatest strength. “It allow[s] artists to be seen by audiences who would not dare to go to smaller venues like Dance Place,” he says. “When those audiences [see] you at Harman Hall, it somehow validate[s] your choreography, your existence.” But some artists feel that exposure is not worth the compromises and expense that can accompany it.

Choreographer Daniel Burkholder, who has spent two decades crafting dance in D.C., placed a site-specific work, “The Playground,” outside Harman Hall last year. He says he considered applying for the mainstage showcase this time, but was discouraged by its montage approach. “One reason I didn’t do it is because I didn’t have a 10-minute piece. I don’t make 10-minute pieces,” he says. “I would have had to develop something specific for the festival.” Expense was also a hindrance. “There was no way for me to take the time to do that with the costs that would be involved.” Paying dancers, renting studio space to rehearse, commissioning a score, paying royalties for music, and covering a choreographer’s expenses far exceed what Velocity—which last week estimated that its expenses were $70,000, with projected income of $50,000—can pay. “There’s definitely not enough compensation for the artists to cover the costs of rehearsals and musicians,” says flamenco choreographer Edwin Aparicio.

Dance Exchange Communications and Development Director Emily Macel Theys agrees about the festival’s compensatory shortcomings. She says her company wound up footing much of the bill for their 2010 appearance. Mendoza, who last year created a site-specific work outside the theater, was given an artist’s fee of $1,200 at the time. This year she applied to present a work on stage, but was asked by the selection panel to do another site-specific piece—the balloon performance outside. Her fee this year was $850. “It was $750 until I asked for a bit more to help us buy our props for the piece,” she writes. “The props alone—balloons with LEDs and helium tanks—ended up being one-third of the artist fee for us.” She says she was able to cover her expenses, but more support would have been ideal. UpRooted is running an Indiegogo campaign to “help finance a variety of costs for this year’s performances.”

Organizers wouldn’t disclose how much they compensate artists, but they say fees vary by the performer’s placement in the festival, how many shows the performer is involved in, the number of artists in each troupe, and other factors.

Some artists say Velocity also exercises too much artistic control, to the point of discouraging new, potentially exciting work. Choreographer Christopher K. Morgan showed his beautifully crafted “C’est le ton qui fait le chanson” at this year’s festival, but it wasn’t a new piece—it was derived from a Phillips Collection commission he premiered in March. He says that in the past, the festival rejected his application to present a project that he was “very passionate about and believed in.” But because that particular work was unfinished, it was rejected. “I had other work I was able to submit that year that fit the parameters, but artistically it was discouraging to have to switch the work I was most compelled to share.”

Theys offers a similar story. “When we were asked to participate again in 2011, it was specifically requested that we do a work by Liz Lerman,” she says, “but this was at a moment when Cassie Meador was transitioning into the role of artistic director, and we were interested in showing her work.” The company later declined to participate in the showcase. “I don’t feel like it’s up to the festival to tell artists what to present,” she says. “If you’re interested in a company, then trust that they have a vision and understand their artistic direction. Otherwise it stifles the dance community.”

Wilkins, of Edgeworks, says Velocity aspires to be so diverse that artistic rigor takes a back seat. “There seems to be greater emphasis placed on being inclusive,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what questions the artist is exploring, so long as they are making work in D.C. that fits VelocityDC’s format.”

Peter DiMuro, the former director of the nonprofit organization Dance/MetroDC who’s been an artistic consultant for VelocityDC since its first year, writes that the festival aims to achieve three goals: “We work to balance programs, bring artists to new audiences, [and] reveal the artists in fully and finely produced concerts (or on site) so they bring their best forward.” Adrienne Willis, executive director of the American Dance Institute and part of this year’s selection panel, agrees that balance is important, but artistry should still be a priority. “It’s important to support artists who are making dance an art form, part of the living arts. I believe in diversity of genre as well as ethnic diversity,” she says.

Mixing it up doesn’t seem to be a problem for Velocity, but the result can be disorienting. Both artists and audiences would benefit from a more thoughtful display, rather than the whiplash-inducing one that dominates the festival each year.

It’s also unclear how much the artists benefit in terms of building their audiences. DiMuro calls Velocity “a portal experience.” The idea is that audiences moved by the festival’s programming will eventually purchase tickets to their favorite artists’ regular season shows. Aparicio, who’s been part of VelocityDC since 2009, says the event helps promote his annual flamenco festival at GALA Hispanic Theatre.

One problem that’s beyond Velocity’s control is that dance tickets are pricey, and the people snatching up $18 seats to the festival might not be the same ones who can afford local companies’ regular shows. WPAS and the Shakespeare Theatre Company also don’t build direct bridges between Velocity audiences and dance companies. They alone keep contact information for Velocity ticket buyers. Burkholder’s 2011 Velocity performance attracted positive reviews, but still, he says, “I don’t know of anyone who saw us for the first time [at VelocityDC] and then became an ongoing audience member.” The companies don’t get access to ticket buyers’ contact information and the precious connections it provides. “As an artist,” he says, “you don’t have any way of reaching these people.”

In the festival’s defense, Pollack says they don’t share patron data with the participating dance companies because “the patron has not requested to be on their individual lists.” She adds, “We’re also not sure how these companies would use the info, and [whether they would] bombard audiences with emails to buy tickets” to their performances.

If audience development is still a work in progress for the festival, artistic development—in the form of connecting local artists to outside performers—is completely off the table. To some artists, that’s a sorely missed opportunity. When the festival first began, former WPAS Program Director Jeff Parks, Peter DiMuro, and Shakespeare Theatre Company Managing Director Chris Jennings found inspiration in out-of-town festivals, particularly Fall for Dance in New York. That event brings together national, international, and local artists, and in its ninth year, now stretches across 12 evenings with performances by 20 companies. Velocity hosted exciting performances from the out-of-towners Brown and Dorner in its first year, but as New York’s festival continues to expand, our hometown version has pursued a much humbler path.

The lack of engagement with other cities and artists diminishes the festival’s impact to audiences, too, and renders it a slightly more ho-hum affair. “I’m a big fan of New York’s Fall for Dance festival,” says Theys. “When I heard D.C. was doing something similar with VelocityDC, I was excited because it can be an important platform for artists. In theory it’s great, but in practice I’ve never been thrilled with how it has turned out.”

VelocityDC doesn’t necessarily need to gleam with star power. A well-curated showcase that builds audiences and fosters artistic growth would be more than sufficient. For D.C.’s highest-profile local dance festival, that shouldn’t be asking too much.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery