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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 2)

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.

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