In Ed Tyler's 'Blind Spot,' an Ending Much Too Soon

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

There are balloons and people on stilts in "Blind Spot," but the atmosphere of this grim circus is hardly cheerful. Ed Tyler's complex, theatrical and provocative work, performed over the weekend by the Maryland Dance Ensemble at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, is an unsettling vision of fractured connections.

Tyler's world is bathed in cold gray light, with blank-eyed women in black Goth garb as well as a predatory crew in fetishistically high-heeled boots (you wonder where their bullwhips are). There are moments of astonishing daring, as when three dancers perch unsteadily atop towering stacks of books, swiveling as if they're on turntables, even as the books shiver beneath them. You know they will fall, and soon, and waiting for it is one of the most unbearable and exciting things I've experienced in the theater. When one woman finally collapses in a pile of jumbled tomes, the others fall too, instantly and intentionally, as if they'd all sworn a death pact.

It's a gut-punching moment. Tyler, 42, died an apparent suicide on Nov. 8, while this work was still in rehearsal. His death shocked the dance community -- Tyler was a respected local choreographer but was especially beloved as a teacher (he had taught at Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and the University of Maryland, among other institutions) and a mentor to many local dancers.

It's hard not to search "Blind Spot" and a second Tyler piece on Saturday's program, "I Am Not My Little Black Dress," for clues as to why he ended his life just when his reputation was growing. In recent years he had received commissions from the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society, and last year, as part of the annual Metro DC Dance Awards, he was presented with the Pola Nirenska Award for his vision and innovation. Yet, as several of his colleagues have described, and as anyone familiar with the unrelenting grip of depression can attest, Tyler apparently suffered wounds that no successes could heal.

Tyler's works hold no "obvious" answers, but they show us a heightened sensitivity to cruelty and conformity and a search for comfort. Sisterly affection soothed away some of the torment within "I Am Not My Little Black Dress," performed by three quietly agitated dancers from James Madison University (where Tyler was also in residence). There was no such solace in "Blind Spot." But this work for six women was shot through with confidence. Its deeply strange elements -- the books, the huge gun-metal gray balloons, the white patent-leather boots and abstract video images that seemed to stream blood -- were organized with calm, unarguable purpose. They were metaphorically rich, emotionally resonant and artistically powerful, underscoring Tyler's gifts in set and costume design. (In nearly 20 years spent in New York as a dancer, he had also worked as a window dresser for Gucci, Chanel and others.) A fertile, if troubled, imagination was at work here, and a sense of dark whimsy and uncompromising standards.

The dancers, students at the University of Maryland, rose admirably to the challenges of this bittersweet program. "All of us agree that we have become stronger dancers, and women, because of [Tyler's] influence," they wrote in a program note. "Please know that while the work does have an ending, it is not complete." One can only hope Tyler's intriguing vision will yet live on.

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