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Cape Magic: Bullfighting

A New Generation of Matadors Face Off with the Bulls in Sevilla, Spain
Bruce Shoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

Antonio Ordóñez had married Dominguín's sister, so their daughter, Carmina, was the product of two dynasties. Carmina Ordóñez also married a bullfighter, Francisco Rivera, known as Paquirri, a handsome, dynamic, thrillingly athletic matador who was gored to death by a bull in 1984. (Gorings are a common part of bullfighting, and most every matador will be gored, more or less seriously, every season. Those who work the closest to the bull put themselves at the most risk.) Paquirri and Carmina Ordóñez were divorced before his death--but not before Francisco was born, on Jan. 4, 1974. Francisco, who attended summer camp and prep school in the United States, tried to ignore bullfighting, but in the end his bloodlines proved too strong.

He debuted as a novice bullfighter in Ronda in May 1992, and was given the alternativa ceremony to become a full matador in Sevilla during last year's Feria de Abril, or April festival. (In the alternativa ceremony, a senior matador fights a bull before handing over the muleta (red cloth) and sword to the novice, who fights and kills the bull.) Rivera Ordóñez worked both his bulls with an unsophisticated grace that day, sweating like a laborer unloading cargo, and was awarded the trophy of an ear off each. (Every so often, though infrequently in the first-class bullrings, matadors earn two ears for particularly inspiring performances. Two ears and a tail is the ultimate reward. Matadors used to get hooves, too, and various other appendices, but that practice proved unsanitary.)

Later that month Rivera Ordóñez fought again in Sevilla, and again earned an ear off each of two bulls. He was named the best matador of the Feria and, throughout Spain, he became the revelation of the summer. This season, aficionados are eager to see if he'll mature as a bullfighter or stagnate because of an undemanding public. That has happened to Spain's most popular matador, Jesulín de Ubrique, who debuted in Ronda in 1989 as a serious teenager with a style of bullfighting that could be described as grave, and evolved into a marketing phenomenon.

Jesulín is still good when he wants to be, but lately he has been satisfied to wave at the bulls as they charge past him on the sand--and wave, again, at the hordes of girls surrounding his van as it inches away from the bullring toward another city. The sad fact is, he's making too much money now to risk a goring by fighting properly. But few of his fans know the difference.

Sevilla in April can be wet, cold and miserable, but it is always lovely. The orange blossoms are in bloom along the Plaza del Museo and many of the local women--bookkeepers, managers, professors--and young girls wear the puffed-up, brightly colored Feria dresses as they stroll through the streets. For at least part of every day, the sun shines. When there is a bullfight in La Maestranza that afternoon, you will hear about it in the bars and on the buses, while waiting to cross the Plaza Nueva as the taxis flash by, or when buying a daily newspaper. "Looks like rain today for [matador] Curro [Romero]," they'll tell you, gazing up at the sky. Or, referring to Rivera Ordóñez: "I'm nervous today for the young one."

As soon as I arrive on the mid-morning plane from Madrid, I stand in line at the bullring to retrieve my tickets, then celebrate with a glass of fino sherry. Next I have a few swallows of Magno, the fiery Spanish brandy that can be bought for less than a dollar a glass. Shortly after 6 o'clock, with the sun still blazing, I am in La Maestranza, on the hard stone seats, with the ubiquitous cigar smoke around me, the familiar beer and ice cream vendors, and the same magical feeling. At 6:30 the trumpet sounds, and the bullfighters emerge from underneath the ring and advance in procession across the sand--amid a sea of camera flashes from the news photographers trotting alongside--to ceremoniously greet the president of the bullring and prepare for the two-hour spectacle to follow, and all is pure possibility.

The trappings remain the same year after year. Unfortunately, so does the deplorable condition of many of the bulls fought in Sevilla. Because the so-called sophisticated crowds here want to see artistic bullfighting, breeders send animals that are smaller, less dangerous and theoretically easier to work with, saving the larger and more ferocious bulls for northern Spain, where an intimidating swell of muscle is exalted. In actuality, bulls in Sevilla often come out weak and docile, tiring so easily that sometimes they simply fall down on their own accord, even without a sword thrust. Other days, they're simply ornery. You can't choreograph a bull, and when it doesn't want to charge, or can't charge, nothing can be done. If you become a bullfight addict, you'll see something to interest you just about every day--but only now and again will you get that tug of emotion of a man cheating death by taming a truly wild and noble animal.

In the meantime, you'll have bullfight conversation, Spain's true pastime. One night I have dinner with Robert Trout, the veteran broadcaster, now in his 90s and semiretired. He saw his first bullfight in 1951 and now lives much of each year in Madrid, though he'll be back in the United States this summer working the Democratic and Republican conventions for ABC. His stories about Edward R. Murrow and the early days of television are fascinating, but I prefer to hear his opinions about the bullfights.

Beside me at the table is Gerry Dawes, a wine importer and writer whose bullfight history dates to the 1960s, when he watched bulls in southern Spain with drama critic Kenneth Tynan. (In 1954, Tynan wrote: "[T]he bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds--love of grace and valour, of poise and pride; and, beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique." For four decades, aficionados have read those words and nodded in agreement.)

Over mediocre food at El Burladero, which has faded badly but still has the haughtiness of the best restaurant in town, Trout tells the table he considers Antonio Ordóñez the best matador he has ever seen. Dawes immediately responds that his grandson "will beat them all before it's over." Dawes has a special feeling for Rivera Ordóñez because he spent much of last summer following him around Spain. What makes the 22-year-old so special, Dawes tells us, is that he knows exactly how closely he can work each bull without being foolhardy: "He has a perfect sense of where he ends and the bull begins."

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