Every once in a while, it’s good to take a step back from allowing “Bullfight World” to appeal only to experienced aficionados, and provide a basic primer for those who have always wanted to see a bullfight, but have no idea of what it’s about. Today’s column is designed for those potential aficionados.
You sit in the stands, waiting. Suddenly, a shrill trumpet sends a shiver of excitement down your spine. Then, a half ton of horned fury explodes into the arena and attempts to destroy everything in sight.
For the next couple of hours, you will witness a pageant of life and death that has existed thousands of years, in one form or another.
La Fiesta Brava. La Fiesta Nacional. La Corrida de Toros. The Bullfight. One of the most popular spectator attractions in the world, this profound ballet between man and beast is very difficult for neophytes to understand or appreciate. Yet, the overwhelming majority of tourists to Mexico, South America, Spain, Portugal, and France include at least one bullfight on their travel itineraries. Most of them, having no understanding of what they’ve seen, leave the plaza with a resolve to never see another episode of that “cruel, savage sport, and anyone who does would pull the wings off of butterflies!”
But, what really goes on down there on the sand? Is it a cruel sport, or a performing art? To answer those questions, one must first understand the fighting bull’s principal character, Toro Bravo, is that of an animal which, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, “is to the domestic bull as the wolf is to the pet dog.”
Unlike his docile bovine cousins, which are raised shoulder-to-shoulder in muddy pens, castrated, then slaughtered, at 12-18 months of age, Toro Bravo is a breed unto itself, which is raised as a wild animal, on special ranches. He is denied nothing, except the presence of cows, a reality which, undoubtedly, contributes to his rather negative disposition.
When, at four years of age, Toro Bravo is sent to the Plaza de Toros, his exposure to man on foot has been minimal. From a standing start, Toro Bravo can outrun any quarter horse for 100 yards; he can raise his own weight atop his horns; he can catch a leaf in midair, or pick up a postage stamp with his horns.
Transforming Toro Bravo’s violent nature and brute force into something aesthetic and artistic is the essence of La Fiesta Brava. Nevertheless, most uninitiated people still classify bullfighting as a sport. In fact, it is a sport only in the context that figure skating and gymnastics are sports. In all three events, accomplishment is secondary to method.
Figure skaters, gymnasts, and toreros perform stylized, ballet-like rituals in which specific disciplines must be demonstrated. One performer uses a cape and muleta; another uses skates; while still another works on parallel bars and rings. The torero does verónicas and muletazos; the figure skater does lutzes and axels; while the gymnast does handstands and flips.
Each engages in a complicated, intimate dance, in which individual identities are melded within swirling illusions of geometric precision and deep emotion. Each attempts to weave and link the aesthetics of his/her own art into a beautiful, albeit ethereal, tapestry. Each maneuver or discipline has a name and must be done according to established patterns. The form of the body, the degree of difficulty or risk involved in each maneuver, the flow, the grace, the plastic symmetry, the personality, and the mastery of technique, are the primary elements.
Yet, even after explaining all of this, the average uninitiated person will still ask, “But, why doesn’t the bull ever win?”
Winning and losing is a concept that cannot be applied to bullfighting any more than it can to ballet. The figure skater doesn’t compete with the ice, the dancer doesn’t compete with the stage, the gymnast doesn’t compete with the parallel bars, and the matador doesn’t compete with the bull.
When a truly brave bull and a truly talented and honorable torero meet, the sands of the plaza become a confessional, in which truth is naked and bold. And Toro Bravo’s death becomes a penance to be celebrated as the tragic, but essential, culmination of the life drama. But, it isn’t designed to be scary, and when you see a matador who seems to be performing as a Kamikaze, he is usually conning the spectators. Great matadors make the whole thing seem simple. All of the toreros basically have scripts. Toro Bravo, the mysterious Mr. X, has never performed on this stage of sand. How he responds is the big question mark. The toreros must answer Toro Bravo’s challenges, while at the same time, creating a beautiful, albeit temporary, tapestry.
How dangerous is bullfighting? In his career, the average matador receives the last rites of his church at least six times. He receives dozens of lesser, non life-threatening, gorings and injuries.
Nevertheless, the death rate is comparatively low. Outside Plaza de Las Ventas, in Madrid, there is a monument to Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Likewise, nowadays, there are surgeons who specialize in repairing horn wounds. Men are surviving horrendous gorings which a century ago, would have proven fatal.
Mexican Matador Luis Freg was gored an estimated 57 times. He drowned in a lake. Carlos Arruza killed 2,000 bulls in his career. He died, in an auto crash. Antonio Velásquez was once gored in the throat. The horn passed through the roof of his mouth, almost into the brain. He survived and became a great matador. While installing a TV antenna, the retired matador fell off the roof of his house and was killed. Matadors César Giron, Manolo Dos Santos, and Jaime Bravo were all killed in auto crashes.
So, if you’re planning to see your first bullfight, first visit your local library. Read a couple of books, such as Barnaby Conrad’s La Fiesta Brava, or John Fulton’s Bullfighting. Then, when you attend a corrida de toros especially if it’s in a Mexican border bullring, where the crowds are generally unsophisticatedwatch, learn, and absorb. Take notes. Put what you’ve read to work for you. Try to attend with a knowledgeable aficionado. Ask questions. Who knows? You may become a genuine aficionado. But, if not, at least you’ve had a fascinating experience, backed up by a basis of knowledge, rather than prejudice.