FOR THE LOVE OF TOREO
When Englishman, Old Etonian and Boisdale regular Alexander Fiske-Harrison travelled to Spain to write a book on bullfighting, he never imagined that he’d be stepping into the ring himself. But after he picked up the red muleta for the first time, everything changed
Anyone who speaks of their first time in the ring in terms of the sweat or the heat, the overwhelming fatigue or the numbing fear, the grittiness of the sand under foot, or the particular odour the Spanish fighting bull brings with it from the corrals, is either lying, misremembering or deranged. For such detailed cognition is not how such massive levels of acute stress work in the normal human mind.
When you are first faced with a bull your world consists of two things: the animal’s eyes and where they are looking, and the animal’s horns and where they are going. As the saying goes of war: there are far too many things to be afraid of to have time to be scared.
By the time I was facing a big animal – three years old and weighing a third of a ton – I had learned how to control that adrenal flow so that I could devote time to reading the animal. For example, seeing which horn he preferred to lead with (like boxers, bulls are either southpaw or orthodox), and noticing whether he wanted to break into a canter in a close-range charge or preferred merely to extend his trot. Then there was the choice of pass I’d make with the muleta – the red cloth with a wooden stick for a spine – extended wider with the sword in its folds when used for a derechazo on the right, or on its own on the more risky, but more elegant, left for a pase natural.
Contained within your first pass is the germ of your second, and your third and so on, for as many passes as the animal has in him before needing to pause and catch his breath. At which point, you expend his momentum by either getting him to break and throw his forehooves into the air with a reverse pass at chest height, a pase de pecho, or plunge his horns downwards towards the sand in a sharp turn using a trincherazo pass. And then you turn your back to the bull and walk away until you feel he is ready for the next tanda, or ‘series’, of passes. And these are just the basics: the entries in the centuries-old dancebook of passes run into the dozens.
And it is not just the bull you are moving and shaping with the lure of the muleta. You are also constantly adjusting yourself in contrast: back straight, gestures as slow and elegant – yet forcefully so – as possible.
As Orson Welles put it: “What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art. And what is the essence of this art? That the man carry himself with grace and that he move the bull slowly and with a certain majesty. That is, he must allow the inherent quality of the bull to manifest itself.”
I fought bulls as an amateur, spending time in private rings to experience some of what the professionals do. Initially, this was for my book Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight; now it’s out of sheer love.
I was taught what little I know by professional matadors on the fly, including the newly retired Juan José Padilla, the most famous matador in Spain, who lost his eye to a bull in 2011 before returning triumphantly to become number one. Padilla attended a bullfighting school for years and has a whole team devoted to improving not just the technique of his toreo – bullfighting is not a good translation of this word; you dance with the bull, if you tried to ‘fight’ it you would die – but also the aesthetics. Movement advisers, dance coaches, thousands of hours in the salon training with a man “running” a pair of horns, and just as much time studying film footage of himself and other matadors, past and present.
For here is the first thing one has to learn about la corrida de toros – literally ‘the coursing of bulls’ (which shows its historic origins in the hunt) – it is not a sport. It is reviewed in the newspapers between theatre and ballet, not football and tennis, and is a three-act drama.
As such, it is not something in which the concept of ‘fair play’ has the slightest of roles: the killing of the bull is a ritual sacrifice. “The bull is a Spanish god who sacrifices himself,” noted Salvador Dalí. “Bullfighters are his priests.”
Of course, sometimes the priests die too – 537 famous professionals since 1700 and countless amateurs and lesser knowns. The most recent to suffer this particular fate was the great matador Iván Fandiño last year, whom I knew a little and miss far more.
It is worth stating very clearly here that when such a death occurs, the bull has not won, nor is he pardoned (although pardons do exist for bulls, but for other reasons). The bull is simply killed by another matador. After all, his meat has been presold before he enters the ring, each of which are EU-registered abattoirs.
Like all of the 1.3 billion-strong global cattle herd, which weigh more than all the humans on Earth, each animal is killed and enters the food chain – and all are killed for our entertainment. We do not need to eat meat, we select it on a whim, to entertain our palates. Spanish fighting bulls also entertain palates, but first they entertain souls as well. For toreo is classed by aficionados and detractors alike in Spain – and France, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia and Venezuela – as an art form. Those who are against it merely see it as an immoral one.
Before I first saw a bullfight, in Seville in June 2000, I was firmly in the anti-taurine camp. But what I saw, the courage and the beauty, made me decide to research further. Now, having chronicled the subject and become immersed in it, I work with the industry body, the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, (Foundation of the Fighting Bull).
Just as in the equine world, where you have not only horse races but polo, dressage, eventing and pony club, so it is with bulls. There are the corridas and their novice variants, novilladas; there is toreo from horseback, known as rejoneo, and the bloodless recortes, where men leap over bulls to the amazement of the crowd.
There is also the amateur interaction that is running with bulls, from the great encierros of Pamplona every July to sueltas de vacas, where a single cow is released into a village street.
Those who are against bullfighting often point to the declining numbers of corridas, which have more than halved in a decade. However, this is as much to do with expense than a perceived backlash: a matador such as Padilla can earn a couple of million Euros a year.
What those who protest the spectacle do not talk about is that the number of bull-running events has more than tripled over the same period, to more than 17,000 last year. This year alone, more than a quarter of cities, towns and villages across Spain will have hosted such an event.
My appreciation of bullfighting is not solely about my respect for the art form. The unique breed of bull is created in 1,300-odd legally registered ranches, consisting of meadow and forest that forms one-fifth of Spain’s dehesa, a natural landscape which is paid for by the box-offices of the rings. Ban bullfighting and these will become intensive meat-cattle farms.
Bulls are ranched in this wilderness from horseback. The bull must not have seen a man on the ground before it enters the ring for the corrida to work at all. The bull charges the man because he does not know what he is, and for the same reason he also takes the lure of the cloth over the body of the torero.
Although in Spain toreo is sometimes seen as a conservative hangover from the past, what aficionados like myself ask for is liberalism in its true, classical sense. The right to be ignored and be allowed to partake in an extraordinary spectacle in which a man, through a statuesque stillness and a piece of moving fabric (bulls are colour-blind and charge the movement of the cloth), invokes the onslaught of the storm of nature. A stage where a performance occurs where the stakes are real, where life asks death to dance, outwits it, and then kills death itself, with nothing more than a sword.
The Bulls of Pamplona, edited by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, is published by Mephisto Press. The second edition of Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books) will be launched at Boisdale of Belgravia in November
(The original magazine can be read online here. This article is on page 48.)
contributors: ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON
An award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster, Alexander Fiske-Harrison is also one of the UK’s only trained bullfighters – a world he takes us into on page 48. Alexander is the editor of new book The Bulls of Pamplona, and author of Into the Arena: the World of the Spanish Bullfight