IT'S SHORTLY after 8 on a Sunday evening. Dancers are sprawled in a corner of an airy Rockville studio -- American Dance Institute's upscale digs a short jog from Rockville Pike's commercial strip. The six weary women refuel, scarfing down wholesome sandwiches, oversize bags of granola and trail mix. One covets a can of Pepsi that curly-haired Tzveta Kassabova sips. "Is that warm?" Meg Foley asks. "Yeah," Kassabova replies, relishing the caffeine. Rehearsing since 3, they have at least two more hours to go before calling it a night.

"I've had pieces before that have exhausted me emotionally, but never for this long," Foley admitted a few days after that seven-hour-plus rehearsal. Working with District-based choreographer Ed Tyler takes commitment and courage, for he demands both from his dancers. For "Sanctuary," his newest work, a full-length piece premiering this weekend at the newly renovated GALA Theatre-Tivoli, he and his dancers have been meeting, rehearsing, talking and investigating for more than a year. He even asked them to learn how to box.

Tyler, a Maryland native, left the area in the early 1980s and spent 17 years in New York both performing and designing displays for Gucci America. When he returned in 1999 to teach and choreograph, Tyler discovered that he worked best slowly and away from the mainstream dance community. He says quite bluntly, "It's been a conscious goal of mine to alienate myself from what has been done, to try to figure out what it is that I do." Tyler recently was honored with a Pola Nirenska Award for his choreography from the Washington Performing Arts Society, which commissioned "Sanctuary."

Like scientists in a laboratory, Tyler and his six dancers (the others are Brooke Bellot, Kelly Bond Wallace, Lillian Cho and Connie Fink) carried out movement trials, probed physical and emotional states, pushed themselves in ever-novel ways -- learning how to dress, walk and, yes, box like men -- not knowing what would result. Tyler's goal was an ambitious one: "We would no longer move the way we moved [before]. We would find new ways to communicate with each other. We would find new ways to create movement and new ways to approach concept and theory. We would come to a better understanding of each other so that we would be thinking and speaking a common language."

Such was the starting point for "Sanctuary," which probes the psychological and spiritual definitions of what a safe haven is, drawing from gestures and stances that the dancers themselves contributed. It demands that Tyler's performing sextet bare itself, body and soul, in its quest for refuge from a harsh, dark, post-industrial landscape of chain-link fences, eerie fluorescent lighting and secondhand clothing strewn around the stage.

"Yes, I'm very bruised," Foley says after a recent rehearsal, and she's not just talking about her body. The emotional journey, which includes mining the depths of a dancer's identity and challenging her own safety nets, is equally exhausting. "The piece took me to a very painful, vulnerable emotional place," she acknowledges.

Tyler describes sanctuary as "that inner space for which we search to find peace. Peace being a kind place to rest one's head." But seeking such respite in an industrialized society has its own hazards, among them bleak isolation, depression and fear.

"Our sanctuary is a myth of danger restrained, of eternal haven," Tyler continues. "[It] doesn't look like anything, sound like anything, smell like anything." The search itself is not for a place, he says, but for the reason one needs sanctuary, a warm home in a frequently unforgiving world.

"I just question whether such a place exists or if it's just a goal or a dream. Is it anything that's tangible and real?"

"SANCTUARY" -- Friday and Saturday at 8. GALA Theatre-Tivoli, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-785-9727 or

Connie Fink, left, Tzveta Kassabova and Kristin King in one of Ed Tyler's previous works. Fink and Kassabova will perform in Tyler's new full-length piece, "Sanctuary."