Last weekend I was twice reminded of the limits of words. The first reminder was the movie "Pina," a documentary about the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009. Bausch died two days before production on the movie began. Though the director, Wim Wenders, put together an admirable film, it is a shame we hear Pina's philosophy only through the voices of her dancers and assistant choreographers, and not from Pina herself.
Still, many of the dance performances are riveting. The dancers, who are unquestionably quick, strong and graceful, are rarely asked to push themselves to the outmost of their physical abilities. Rather, they are pushed to the limits of their powers of emotional expression. Bausch once said "I am not interested in how people move but what moves them." That tenet is central to her choreography.
I am not well-versed in modern dance, or any dance form for that matter. There were critics who described Bausch's work as "incoherent" and "masochistic." But "Pina" allowed me to appreciate that Pina Bausch saw dance as an opportunity to express thoughts and emotions that words cannot. Maybe that isn't a novel concept, but I felt that she added to the emotional lexicon that only dance can express, in a way I hadn't felt before. That is why I won't try to analyze the choreographed scenes in the film, which included many of her most famous productions as well as some short, amusing scenes that seem to have been made just for the film. All I can say is that the dancing made me feel something I could not describe nor felt the need to.
The next morning I watched the final two sets of the Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It was an all-time great match. First Djokovic appeared to have the match in control. Then Nadal roared back as only he can do; what an incredible performer when his back is against the wall. I read one writer who noted that Nadal is far more responsible for the greatness of the three-headed rivalry he now shares with Djokovic and Roger Federer, because he raises the emotional pitch of the matches in a manner that the other two cannot. Here was Nadal at it again, coming back in the fourth set to tie the match, and then breaking Djokovic early in the fifth set, seemingly on his way to a fantastic comeback victory. Not only was Djokovic down a break, he was limping from a hamstring injury and seemed exhausted.
Just as suddenly, Djokovic found the resolve to elevate the quality of his play, match Nadal's intensity, and wrest control of the play. I don't think even Federer could have found that extra gear under the circumstances, especially five hours into the match, the way that Novak did. Djokovic broke back and then broke again to win the fifth set, the title, and in my opinion cement his place alongside Nadal and Federer as one of three all-time greats playing today.
Watching the match, I sensed just how deeply both athletes reached to find the strength to continue. Afterwards they could barely stand (yet demonstrated incredible poise and graciousness during the trophy presentation); as Djokovic said, they had both used the very last drop of energy in their bodies. While Djokovic won, and won heroically, Nadal showed courage and resolve every bit as impressive.
I think this is what makes great tennis so great: you can focus on one person, see his or her emotions laid out in plain view, become exhausted just watching them play, see their fortunes turn on a single point, and know that there must be a winner and a loser, but also know that the loser often delivers the more profound performance. When it happens, you just know it by feeling, and despite the score.
The biggest moments of our lives are often reduced to meager cliches or emotional outbursts (adult and child alike), largely because there is no other way to express what we are feeling. This is due to the interstice that stands between our most powerful emotional experiences and our ability to put them into words. My favorite writers are, invariably, writers who tackle the challenge of bridging that gap and drawing more of the unexpressed into their domain.
To my mind, the Australian Open final and "Pina" were both glimpses at the ineffable, no different than what a great song, book, joke, food, wine or relationship might provide.