The governor roared into town on a Harley, fireworks pierced the sky at midnight, and--in answer to Times Square's crystal ball--a wooden lobster trap was ceremoniously lowered from a crane into Passamaquoddy Bay. But for many in this easternmost U.S. city, the real celebration came at the break of dawn.
For 100 or more hardy souls, braving the single-digit cold to see the nation's first year 2000 sunrise and a site-specific dance performance on Eastport's breakfront, the future was best met not with technology and fanfare but with simple gestures of home, hard work and praise.
Eastport, population less than 2,000, lies at the far reaches of Maine's rocky, pine-forested coast, a small enclave of graceful 19th-century architecture whose skyline hasn't changed much in more than 100 years. For a few minutes just before 7 a.m. yesterday, its long, high pier became a massive stage. There, as darkness faded from a cloudless sky, six members of the Washington, D.C.-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and nearly 50 locals joined in "Hallelujah: First Light," a dance choreographed from the residents' family traditions, histories and hopes for the new century. In months of workshops, residents had told their stories and the D.C. dancers had listened.
As company director Lerman, hoisted aloft in a forklift at one end of the pier, shouted cues, a galloping beat rolled out of a pickup truck bearing huge speakers. The dancers--men, women and children bundled in sweaters, jackets, boots and hats--jogged onto the pier in clumps, huddled up and circled, then mimed laying heads down to sleep, then reached for the sky. The music shifted to a more contemplative warble (the work of composer Robert Een) as the dancers faced each other in two rows and flowed into a kind of line dance.
The opening gesture, in which the arms reached overhead and then swept down in front as if cradling something small, grew from one woman's story of seeking a home here just big enough to hold her heart. Other gestures echoed the losses Eastporthas suffered since the turn of the last century, when it was a bustling port. It supported 18 sardine factories and a busy railroad line back then--all of which have since vanished. There was a section of the dance that evoked pulling up fishing nets, and one for hauling logs. One part of the work referred to a tradition in several families of weaving a wreath from the hair of their dead. The 20-minute work ended with the performers' arms lifted to the brightening sky.
"Wasn't that wonderful?" enthused Arlene Critchley. "Seeing all those people getting together."
Yet as the company discovered, it wasn't easy to get the traditionally reticent Mainers to open up to strangers, or people "from away." Eastport's struggling economy, now relying mostly on seasonal work such as blueberry-raking and clamming, has also heightened suspicions.
Only two men showed up the day before at a workshop for veterans, where they were asked to think of items for an imaginary time capsule. "Here's a fishhook," said one man finally. "In 100 years, no one will know what that is."
Yet for Tess Chaffey Ftorek, whose Eastport roots go back eight generations, the dance had a special power. "All the pieces that go into this mean something to me--pulling up the nets, looking at the stars, because of my family's heritage," she said.
As the performance ended and the dancers drifted into a nearby warehouse for coffee, Lerman, having climbed out of the forklift, surveyed the scene. What ultimately pleases her, she said, is "this messy, human attempt, with hundreds of people, at making something beautiful together that has some meaning."
As she spoke, the sun, a brilliant orange, finally broke above Canada's Campobello Island, across the bay. For several moments it was suspended in a pool of gold.
"Ah, look at that," said Lerman, her voice both awed and sad. "Maybe we should have waited 10 more minutes. All the arms would have been raised up right to it."
She considered the colorful sky.
"Nah--you can't compete with that."