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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.

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."

Whether Rivera Ordóñez can maintain that innate knowledge once he learns enough to be fearful is an open question. My favorite matador, Espartaco, was the steadiest anywhere until his celebrated marriage a few years ago. Last year he suffered a goring and a dangerous concussion. Now he owns land and breeds bulls and has a good life and a frightened wife, and his future as a matador is uncertain. That's why it is said that matadors are best when they're young, unattached and penniless, and dedicated to nothing more than fighting and killing bulls well. The rest of life only gets in the way.

That opening larga cambiada turns out to be the highlight of the first of Rivera Ordóñez's two appearances in this year's Feria. He's been grouped with Jesulín de Ubrique and one other matador, and they all expend most of their effort shoving muletas in front of their bulls and pleading with them to charge. The previous afternoon, Jesulín had won some admiration from the serious aficionados with fragments of honest, daring bullfighting, but he had also affected some dramatic maneuvers that meant little because he guided his bull away from his exposed body with the far corner of the muleta as he passed it. Bullfighting is less about how you move than how you stand still, face the horns honestly and direct the bull past you to somewhere that it wouldn't otherwise go, and fraudulent passes are usually evident to anyone who cares to notice them, because you don't feel anything. Perhaps because Rivera Ordóñez is alongside him this time, Jesulín appears determined to do serious work, but his bulls stagger through the afternoon. He kills them quickly, his disgust showing.

Two days later, José Arroyo--who calls himself Joselito, like the legendary matador Jose Gomez of the early 1900s, and does the best capework in Spain--finally succeeds in Sevilla after years of bad luck. He's able to pull one of his two bulls around his body with long, slow passes, maintaining complete control. As soon as the bull lifts its head after finishing its charge and turns back to find its tormentor, he's there again, feet firm, ready to pass it back the other way. That continuity heightens the emotion.

Joselito finishes with the finest, purest kill of the week: a single sword-stroke between the bull's shoulder blades, in what is called the killing spot. The bull stumbles to the sand almost instantly, its blood staining red, and dies. What you might feel as you see this is not pity or glory, not exultation or rage, but a deepened awareness of your own mortality. It is an ironic counterpoint to the hint of immortality you may have sensed when the matador passed the bull with a magician's grace and cheated death a few moments before. When a bullfighter can do these things with honesty and maybe some artistry, he earns an ear. Joselito gets one, and he might well have deserved two.

Rivera Ordóñez has a second afternoon in La Maestranza before leaving for the next festival in the next city. He's on the following day with Curro Romero and Emilio Muñoz, a combination the newspapers have been calling the strongest of the week. Romero is a phenomenon all his own. He's 62 years old and the city's most problematic matador. When a bull doesn't suit him, which is almost always, he does nothing with it, just parries with the muleta and kills shamelessly by running past and stabbing it in the side. At his best, in the 1960s, he was capable of some of the most astonishing acts of control the bullfight has witnessed, leading bulls through passes in what seemed like slow motion. He can still do something like that with the cape, though only for a handful of passes a year. When he does, you get a glimpse of what used to be. When he doesn't even try, the spectators throw plastic cushions at him as he walks out of the ring.

Muñoz, too, has a special history. In 1993, a friend of mine brought a young director of television commercials to Sevilla. This director, Michael Haussman, knew little about bullfighting but was eager to learn. He sat with us through two weeks of badly bred, weak-kneed bulls and wet weather, fascinated by the spectacle and its ambience. We were rewarded for our patience one spectacular afternoon when Muñoz brought us to tears. He earned three ears and was carried out of the bullring, down the crowded main road and across the Guadalquivir river to the barrio of Triana, where he'd grown up. Haussman was transfixed.

Later that year, pop star Madonna asked Haussman to direct one of her music videos. The song was called "Take a Bow," and her only suggestion was that she wanted to show herself in love with a public figure, perhaps a politician. No, said Haussman, still under the spell, it had to be a bullfighter. Instead of Enrique Ponce, the smoothest matador in Spain, or Jesulín de Ubrique, Haussman insisted on Muñoz, because he had seen him triumphant. It didn't hurt that Muñoz looked like a bullfighter is supposed to, with dark hair, flashing eyes and an enigmatic smile. They contracted Muñoz for $1 million and filmed the video in Antequera, near Málaga. Now he's an international TV star, though few people outside Spain know his name.

My last afternoon, I made my annual visit to Sevilla's cemetery. José Gomez, the original Joselito, is entombed there since his death from a goring in 1920. So is his rival, Juan Belmonte, who lived into his 70s and committed suicide when his doctor told him he could no longer drink, cape bulls or make love. Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, about whom Federico García Lorca wrote his famous poem, is there, as is Paquirri, Rivera Ordóñez's father.

 

A cemetery is a fine and fitting place to celebrate bullfighting, and not only because Spanish culture revels in death. Bullfight history is intertwined with stories of untimely demise. A bullfighter needn't make a mistake to be gored and killed, but only want to succeed with a bull very badly, which is why those killed in the ring are revered as heroes. The more ambitious a matador gets, the smaller his margin of error. (The best usually try to cut it as close as possible, which is why Rivera Ordóñez has such potential for majesty--and for getting caught.) When a matador sees something special in a bull and dedicates it to the audience, he'll invariably take the winged black hat off his head and carefully place it open-side-down on the sand. If he casually flings it behind him and it lands open-side-up, it is said to symbolize the beggar's cup his widow will carry through the streets when he is killed.

I place a flower on Paquirri's grave, in tribute to the bullfighter he was and in thanks for his progeny. Then I walk back along the river, past the architectural detritus of Expo '92, to see if his son can live up to such billing.

Before he gets his chance, I see Muñoz get gored in the hand, refuse to get it bandaged, continue to work the bull with a cold fury and earn an ear. Later, Romero dedicates one of his bulls to the mother of Spain's king. She's a big fan and often attends when he fights in Sevilla. He puts in a surprising amount of work but gets nothing out of a recalcitrant animal. We've all seen him waste too many good bulls through the years to feel any sympathy.

The sixth and final bull of the day belongs to Rivera Ordóñez. It charges with reluctance and swings its head from side to side when it does, which makes predicting its actions perilous. A lesser matador, or one with less to prove, would give up and wait for another day. But Rivera Ordóñez senses that the bull can be controlled if worked low, where it can see best, so he bends his knees, leans over and gives it five technically perfect passes a few inches off the ground. Soon the bull is his and the band begins playing, an unofficial signal of approval.

There's nothing too profound about the work he's doing, but it's masterful: a triumph of technique. It is not the epic talent of Muñoz or Romero at their best, but, as Tynan described Rivera Ordóñez's grandfather Antonio after watching him as an 18-year-old in 1952, "wholly lyric." For a moment I'm heartened by the sense I have that Rivera Ordóñez's natural genius will mature into profundity in the years to come, just as his grandfather's did--and then in a flash I realize that it may never have the chance. That variable is the essence of following bullfighting, for the list of bullfighters gored and ruined is long and moist with tears, a few of them mine, and nobody knows who will be added. Better to concentrate your emotions on what's before you at the moment. Bullfighting taught me that, and it's a fine lesson.

There is absolute quiet when Rivera Ordoñez goes in to kill, but with his first two sword thrusts he hits bone and generates nothing more than a surface wound. He gets the appreciative applause that means he has performed well but isn't going to get an ear, and by the time the bull finally dies the emotion has gone. We file out of the stands feeling as we often do: drained of ardor, ambivalent, but ready to talk about what we've seen--and alive, utterly alive.

Bruce Schoenfeld, the author of The Last Serious Thing: A Season at the Bullfights, writes from his home in Colorado about bullfighting, wine and other matters of the heart.

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