Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Los Toros: A Performance

A las cinco de la tarde.
Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde.
Un niño trajo la blanca sábana
a las cinco de la tarde.
Una espuerta de cal ya prevenida
a las cinco de la tarde.
Lo demás era muerte y sólo muerte
a las cinco de la tarde.

It was just five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basket of lime made ready
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death and only death
at five in the afternoon.

--Federico García Lorca, fragment from "Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías." Translation by A. S. Kline.

The torero, or bullfighter, is supposed to be a sexy creature. From the moment he enters the Plaza de Toros with his cape the color of fresh blood, he is the ancient symbol of the virile Spanish man. His exceptionally gaudy and colorful outfit—complete with pink socks, plenty of sparkly gold bling, and the funniest of little black hats—fits him very, very tightly as he steps out in perfect posture. I don't care who you are, you can't miss the marked curve of his little butt that he sticks out proudly as he strikes his performer's pose. Despite the ridiculousness of his outfit, his presence is commanding, and the crowd responds to it as such.

I had barely been in Sevilla a week when I watched the events of the Saturday Feria de San Miguel celebrations unfold under the afternoon sun between an Australian couple and a couple from Madrid who had traveled to Sevilla expressly to see los toros, the bulls. Around us sat a mixture of Spaniards and foreign tourists, often American or French. A bullfight is one of the must-see spectacles in this city—if you can stomach the sight of a peculiar form of animal violence. Regardless of one's particular position on bullfighting, the experience is an interactive art form imbued with tradition that offers a window into Sevillian culture, and a living history of sorts.

There were three toreros and six bulls. When a banderillero pricked the first bull, the Australian woman beside me said, "So that's it, right?" I shook my head. "Not nearly about," I said.  

A banderillero avoids horns just after sticking the banderillas in the bull's neck

I had seen a few corridas, or bullfights, on television, but seeing it live for the first time was a completely different experience. The electric charge of the silence as the men on the torero's team of helpers in the sandy ring concentrated; the hulking, muscular black form of the bull; the call and response of male human voices and charging animal hooves—all these kept me on the edge of my seat like a World Cup game between Mexico and Argentina. Because when I watched the blood darken to purple against the animal's hide and when I heard it grunt before charging the man who was always no longer there, the bull forced me to face the raw fact of death in its immediacy, not as an abstract concept I prefer to conceive of as far removed into the future.

The bulls were "muy flojos," the Madrileña woman to my left informed me. They lacked energy. The second torero instructed his men to weaken the bull too much, draining too much blood from it, with the result that the animal was buckling at the knees before the torero even had time to demonstrate his skill with the cape. It is no wonder that one of my friends had to leave early. For him, as he put it, the spectacle became "no longer a game of death, but a game of suffering."

In its purest form, bullfighting is supposed to be a game of life and death. If the torero has a good faena, the Madrileña woman told me, it means that he has proved himself against the bull; he has dominated him. He has danced with the bull, he has subjected him to his will. He has dominated the animal without emasculating him. He has faced an animal with a pair of fearsome, phallic horns, and finished unequivocally—even beautifully—victorious. If he does everything just right, he wins the bull’s ear.

In an attempt to not be the ugly American and instead fit in, I clapped when everyone else did, stood when everyone else did. It made sense, for the most part. It made sense to clap when the torero was obviously doing well with the bull. It even made sense to me to clap when he drove the sword deep into the bull's neck in one clean movement, leaving only the hilt glinting in the dying sun. But I was not so eager to applaud the bull's fall to the ground--a slow, stumbling, kneeling motion--or the carcass being dragged off by three horses.

The third torero captivated the audience. In his wavy black hair and sky blue suit he exuded the confidence necessary for the performance. The torero is an actor, a dancer, an athlete—in essence, a performer. And like any performer, he requires the participation of the audience. The audience’s participation is choreographed, to an extent, and stems from the performance of the actors in the ring. There are moments when you are supposed to clap, moments when you are supposed to be silent, moments when you are supposed to stand, and moments when you are supposed to intone ¡Olé!* But you are only to do these things—these performative acts—if and when the torero prompts you to. Not every swing of the cape deserves an olé; not every torero deserves a standing ovation when he has finished off his bull.

Miguel Ángel Perera, the third torero and also the youngest, performed virility with enough finesse to secure the ear of his first bull. Indeed, his performance was so skillful, and so clearly unlike that of the previous two toreros, that afterwards he walked around the entire ring, never once unsteadying his perfect stance, while the audience clapped for him and threw him hats and flowers. He did not even stoop to pick these up from the sand—his cohort of helpers did this. He established himself so clearly as the prince of the show, that by the time it was his turn again to face the very last bull, the suspense had reached a bursting point.

And he knew it.

Miguel Ángel Perera walked into the ring that Saturday afternoon not only to dance with the bull and dominate him. He came to do the same with the people.

At the end of a corrida, the bull kneels to the ground and in so doing says, “You’ve won.” The torero needs the public to give him recognition in the same way. So he courts the audience. The audience will not applaud if it feels defrauded; it will applaud and happily fall into the palm of the torero’s hand if he shows her pretty things and—most importantly—if his performance is clean.

Normally, the bull comes barreling in at the beginning and meets four or five men in their outrageous bullfighting costumes who work together to lure the bull into charges with pink capes, before darting behind wooden fences so the bull does not gore them. Not so this time. Perera prepared to meet the bull alone in the ring, on his knees (in much the same position as the bull when he kneels in dying), not ten meters from the gate where the bull would burst out at any moment. He kept nervously re-arranging the pink cape across his lap, letting it settle again and again before him, making sure of his grip. He made me nervous, just watching him.

And then the bull bolted out at full tilt, horns charging for a deadly gore. And, in a gymnastic pirouette, Perera got to his feet while swirling the cape just next to his body, and the bull charged past.

That was the beginning of Perera’s smooth dance with his bull. The two had a special relationship that could almost be called an understanding, that we, the onlookers, could never be part of, even though we were privy to it. When the band played, Perera steered the bull tightly round and round his body, and the surge of ¡Olé!’s meant that he had conquered not just the bull but also the spectators. He knew it, and he gazed proudly out to the audience in his tall, confident stance.

But he had not completely won yet. In order to earn his second bull’s ear of the afternoon and leave the ring the undisputed king of the day, Perera needed to place the sword correctly on the first try. The moment when the torero stares the bull in the eyes, and they both know that the animal is going to die, and the man levels the sword to drive it deep into the bull’s neck and finish it off, is called el momento de la verdad, the moment of truth. It is the moment of truth for the bull because it is the moment when he will die. Perhaps he will not fall to his knees for some minutes, but he is done for. But it is also the moment of truth for the man. In order to truly prove his manliness, he must be effective in this moment, when it really counts. If he fails here after a great faena or performance, it is as if he has lured a beautiful, hard-to-get woman into his bed, only to be impotent when it really matters.

Perera missed.

On the second try, he did indeed deal the fatal blow, but once his bull had fallen to the sand, he leaned heavily against the red wooden barrier and buried his face in his arms. He was inconsolable. The people applauded hard and long, but he did not even look out at the stands. “Pobrecito, está hecho polvo,” the Madrileña woman said. “Es que está hecho polvo.” He’s “turned to dust,” she was saying. He had fallen apart, and could face no one for shame.

No bullfighter was borne out of the ring on anyone’s shoulders that evening. But the people clapped hard for the young man who had made us hold our breaths.

There are still many things I do not understand about the bullfight. It has symbolism and meaning that I am sure I have glossed over, and that I would like to learn about more in depth. The above has been my personal impressions, based on observation, listening, and prior knowledge. I hope that having witnessed this bullfight, and having experienced the incredible suspense and excitement that thickened the air, I may begin to better understand the place of the toros and the art of tauromaquia in this city's conception of itself and in relation to the other arts that flourish here.

*I write olé with an accent here because that is customary. However, to my ear, it sounds more like ole, with the accent on the o. It sounds like an exclamation of appreciation and a bit of awe at the same time.

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