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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

As Francisco Rivera Ordóñez walks across the bullring's bright yellow sand, a murmur swells from the crowd, crests, and breaks into the crackle of scattered applause. He reaches an open gate, from which a 1,250-pound animal, bred for aggression and allowed from birth to roam wild on the grassland of southern Spain, will emerge, blinking and mystified, into the afternoon light. The heavy metal door underneath the stands slams shut with an audible clang, meaning the bull is caught in a narrow corridor, its only exit onto the sand. Hearing the door slam, Rivera Ordóñez drops to his knees, bunches the top of the heavy plastic cape in his right hand, and waits.

This is Sevilla, a city of traditions as permanent and inflexible as the hard stone seats of its eighteenth century bullring, La Maestranza. One tradition is the absolute silence of the crowd while a matador fights a bull, an affectation--not duplicated anywhere else in Spain--that makes the experience seem closer to theater than sport. Another is a formalized approach to the bullfight, which here is perceived as a ballet of grace and fluidity with ties to flamen-co dance. In Sevilla, it is not enough to fight a bull with dignity and valor. One must be an artist.

Rivera Ordóñez is not an artist but an honest bullfighter, raw and unadorned. His father was a matador, and his mother's father, his mother's grandfather and several of his great-uncles. He was raised in Ronda, where modern bullfighting started in the 1700s.

A bullfight is still held there annually in which the participants dress up like figures from a Goya painting, and Rivera Ordóñez's grandfather, Antonio Ordóñez, promotes it.

Although he's only in his second season as a full matador, Rivera Ordóñez understands something elemental about the bullfight that the aficionados of Sevilla, done up like a theater crowd in their coats and ties, often manage to forget. A primordial struggle of life and death between a man and a wild animal lies at the heart of the spectacle, and it is delusionary to pretend otherwise. On this afternoon, his first of two appearances at this year's April festival, Rivera Ordóñez has come across the ring to attempt a maneuver seldom seen in Sevilla called the larga cambiada, where he takes a kneeling position. It is closer to showboating than artistic bullfighting, but it is always dangerous and therefore always dramatic. As he awaits the bull, nobody makes a sound.

Without warning it bounds out of the corridor, and Rivera Ordóñez flings one end of the cape into the air and twirls it over his head. Seeing it, the bull charges--and leaps into the air and over Rivera Ordóñez in pursuit of the cape, which is no longer where it was a moment before. The crowd responds, almost against its will, with shouts of "Olé!", a sign of approbation.

Rivera Ordóñez scrambles to his feet and faces the bull as it turns, no longer curious but wrathful. He holds the cape in front with both hands, then swivels his waist as the bull approaches, keeping his feet still through force of will. The cape flutters through the air just ahead of the bull, whose horns pass within six inches of his chest. As the bull takes a moment to contemplate its confusion, Rivera Ordóñez backs away to catch his breath. The applause is tumultuous.

Bullfighting suffered after Franco's death in 1975, when Spaniards turned against anything that reminded them of the long years of dictatorship, but these days it is thriving like never before. Spanish television broadcasts as many as five bullfights a week, and an estimated 40 million spectators attended bullfights or similar taurine spectacles last year in Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Rome's Colosseum has recently received permission from the Italian government to promote a bullfight, and talk of the same has come from as far away as Moscow.

I make a pilgrimage to Sevilla each April, buying a week's worth of bullfight tickets for more money than I can afford. I've seen a man die in La Maestranza, gored in the heart by a bull's horn, and I've felt emotion as profound as any in my life watching certain matadors triumph. Though Madrid's monthlong bullfight festival is longer and the bullfights at Bilbao and Pamplona regularly get better bulls, Sevilla's remains the most important. It has the most history, and in taurine matters history carries weight.

If Francisco Rivera Ordóñez is the matador of the moment, it is because his ancestry is steeped in history. Ernest Hemingway based his matador's character in The Sun Also Rises on Cayetano Ordóñez, a matador of the 1920s nicknamed "Niño de la Palma"--Young Boy of the Palm. Antonio Ordóñez, Cayetano's son and Francisco's grandfather, was Spain's most important bullfighter of the late 1950s and '60s. His 1959 rivalry with his brother-in-law--Luis Miguel Dominguín, another superior matador and Ava Gardner's lover, who recently died at age 69--was the subject of another Hemingway book, The Dangerous Summer.

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