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In Memoriam: Phyllis Slattery

Remembering the longtime director of Dance Umbrella
Robert Faires, 5:55pm, Wed. Dec. 19, 2012
Phyllis Slattery as Chaucia in "Wallpaper Psalm"

The Austin dance community has lost one of the dearest friends it has ever had. Phyllis Slattery, who just this month marked her 25th anniversary as the executive director of Dance Umbrella, passed away last night in Pennsylvania. She had celebrated her 54th birthday only two weeks earlier.

Slattery had been in Austin only a couple of years when she was handed the reins to Dance Umbrella. At the time, this New York University grad was working with local kids, teaching creative movement and drama in the schools and developing curriculum for a summer youth program, and few probably expected her to be much of a force in the dance scene. But she quickly began channeling her considerable energy into that 10-year-old choreographers' collective, and within a few years DU had beefed up its services for, assistance to, and sponsorship of local movement artists; expanded its educational outreach to the public in general and young people specifically; and was running its own performance space and booking into it trailblazing companies and dancers of national renown.

She never had the kind of resources that Dance Umbrella needed or deserved – one of the reasons that the organization had to shutter Synergy Studio after eight years – but Slattery tried to compensate by giving that much more of herself to the dancers and choreographers with whom she worked. "Generous" is a word that comes up again and again when Slattery is described, and she is credited with being both a dear friend and an inspiration by many on the Austin scene, as well as many of the national artists she brought to town. And the roster of artists she saw to it came to Austin is staggering, a who's who of contemporary dance: Donald Byrd, Robert Moses, 33 Fainting Spells, Dah Teatar, Vincent Mantsoe, Tere O'Connor, Bridgman-Packer Dance, Wideman-Davis Dance, Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco, Paula Hunter … the list could go on and on, as she hosted more than 80 residencies during her years at DU. More than 40,000 people are said to have been witness to the performances of those DU-presented artists, but that doesn't begin to measure the lives she touched or her impact on Austin's dance community. When you consider the artists who say Phyllis gave them what they needed to get their start in Austin – Margery Segal, Andrea Ariel, Ruth Margraff, to name a few – and all the artists who pushed themselves to try something new in DU's annual performance showcase, 10 Minutes Max, and the people touched by her performances in shows such as Margraff's Wallpaper Psalm, and the artists she helped write grants, and the children reached by DU's educational program, well, the numbers go beyond easy calculation, but they span the width and breadth of this city.

Over the last seven years, Slattery had been spending more time back east in her hometown of Bristol, Penn., as she cared for her ailing mother. It took her back to working with kids, as she had a job with the Bristol Riverside Theatre and served as its education director. She ran a summer program called Artrageous that was responsible for introducing hundreds of the area's children to theatre. According to a post on Facebook by Jason Phelps: "Using her connections to amazing performers in the Philly area and beyond, the kids of Bristol were treated to free, life-changing, life-saving theatre/dance classes. She invited me to come teach two summers ago and I witnessed how valuable ‘Ms. Phyllis’ was to these kids and how involved she was with their families."

Word of Slattery's passing is still circulating among her friends in Austin, and there's no word yet as to what kind of event or service might be held locally to celebrate her life. That news will be passed along when it's received.

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