By Lyn Sherwood
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Courage is grace, under pressure.”
Just five little words. And, yet, Hemingway used them to summarize the very essence of bullfighting.
Grace. That’s the operative word, here. When a truly courageous matador and a truly brave bull perform together, the entire performance appears to have been choreographed. The matador appears to invest all of the effort that others might incorporate into walking down the street. It doesn’t seem dangerous, because the matador makes it seem that way. His grace, his dignity, his honor, overcome his fear. Overwhelming, without suffocating, his performance. He leaves an indelible impression.
And, even when the bull isn’t brave or noble, even when its attack is erratic and undependable, the truly great matador is still able to give it the proper performance, the appropriate lídia, even when the final result is, from the crowd’s standpoint, less than triumphant.
Oh, there’s plenty of room for showmanship. But, stances of triumph should be used as exclamation marks, to emphasize a treatise of artistry. When such frivolities become the essence of the taurine essay, their meaning is lost and their significance is prostituted.
When man and bull come together, it should be like a symphony. Imagine, if you will, the sensuous lines of a slowly moving, silk-adorned woman, flowing, spontaneous, and aesthetic. Then, compare those criteria to a pole dancer in some men’s club, who titillates, but doesn’t seduce. This will give you a clue to the flowing, plastic lines of a properly performed series of capotazos or muletazos. Each movement opens the door to the next, in perfect, ritualistic symmetry. The sexiness is not as much carnal as it is voluptuous.
Man and bull become one entity, an amorphous, yet geometrically structured and balanced melding of strength and artistry, not as much a salute to death as a celebration of life, an almost erotic encounter in which both partners in the dance complement each other. The “Dance of Seven Veils” comes to mind. Grace, under pressure.
Above all, the matador must not merely take advantage of the bull’s natural line of attack. He must impose speed and direction. He must gain ground with each pass and each series of passes. Otherwise, he is not toreando; he is merely giving passes, and there is a world of difference between those two things.
No matter what other criteria may be involved, the three basic preceptsparar, man-dar, and templarare essential to any performance.
If any of those elements is missing, the performance, itself, is empty and meaningless.
We have to make one thing perfectly clear. A bullfight is not the testing of a man’s courage, but that of a bull. It is, after all, the Fiesta de Los Toros. By donning the suit of lights, the matador has already proven that he has courage. Now, he must demonstrate that he has enough honesty, enough personal honor, enough respect for the bull, enough integrity to justify his taking the life of the world’s most beautiful animal.
But, beware of the character who seems to be working in kamikaze fashion, for he is, generally, a fraud. His work should be held in disdain. One can only lament, “what a waste of a bull of brave blood”. To have lived four years (the empresas attempt to convince us) in preparation for this one afternoon, only to be afforded a less than honorable death, is a disgrace.
Above all, a performance should not provoke fear. As Robert Daley wrote, in “The Swords of Spain”, a beautiful bullfight is never scary and a scary bullfight is seldom beautiful”.
But, we’re living through an era of extremism. From skateboards to motorcycles to snow surfing and even daredevil bicycle riders and professional wrestling and martial arts, contemporary blue collar crowds have come to anticipate being thrilled, frightened, and otherwise entertained by exhibitions of outrageous stunts and tricks. And, such doesn’t come even close to that which tauromaquia was designed to be.
Nevertheless, the majority of modern crowds enthusiastically applaud the daredevil torero, the character who always seems to be teetering between life and death. Very little, if any, thought is invested in La Fiesta’s primary performer: Toro Bravo and the dignity that should be invested in his sacrifice.
Is it any wonder that gymnastics, figure skating, and high diving will never attract the huge audiences that turn out to watch some muscled behemoth demonstrate that his manhood is more impressive than that of his opponent, that the crotch is more important than the brain?
What is the answer? Ah, there’s the question. La Fiesta has always pitted commercialism against artistry, and artistry always has been, and always will, come in second best. For, one fact is irrefutable. Without the commercial, the artistic could not exist. It’s one hand, washing the other. To enjoy the beautiful, one must be willing to accept the ugly. And, that means tolerating crowds who don’t understand or appreciate the deep differences between the two things.
Such is the way that it has always been and such it will always be. And, as long as those who control the destiny of La Fiesta are more interested in beer sales than in taurine artistry, there is no escaping that obscene reality.