The Dance of Death

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Figure 1: Up close image of a veronica pass in a bullfight in the Madrid’s Las Ventas- taken from Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

 

As the first bull entered the ring through the gate charging with a soft galloping rush, the matador and his team immediately began assessing the bull’s reactions using their capote and their voices.  The work with the capote is often seen as one of the most visually appealing parts of the bullfight. The basic and most classic pass performed during this phase is called the “veronica”.  Each bullfighter tries to give a personal interpretation of this pass (Fig 1).

 

It was a known fact that Ernest Hemingway the writer, was a regular at bullfights across Spain, forming friendships with some leading matadors of that time (http://www.telegraph.co.uk).  He explored his own thoughts on the fear and courage involved in bullfights.  If there was anyone who could describe a “veronica” pass well,  it had to be Hemingway:

“Without hesitation, the bull charged at Chicuelo.  The kid stood his ground, simply swung back on his heels and floated his cape like a ballet dancer’s skirt in to the bull’s face as it passed.  “Ole” roared the crowd. The bull whirled and charged again.  Without moving Chicuelo repeated the performance again.  His legs rigid, just withdrawing his body from the rush of the bull’s horns, he floated the cape with that beautiful swing.  Again the crowd roared!  Each time he gave the bull a free shot at him, missing him by inches”

(1923 Hemingway Papers, Ernest Hemingway)

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Figure 2: End of Phase 1, the matador in green suit of lights together with his band of support crews of banderilleros and picadors (on horse-back) (as seen from the top of the stadium where we were seated).

I heard many ole from the stands that Wednesday evening (Fig 2).   All of a sudden, the entire stadium stood up exploding in a gasp of horror, triggered by an adrenaline rush. A body was suddenly tossed up into the air by a bull in a moment of a careless pass.  Even though the toss was not fatal, it was easily an eight foot toss no doubt.  The matador picked himself up while his banderilleros tried to avert the bull’s attention with their capes and voices. But his finery was stained by the bull, bloodied by the piercings of the lances of the banderillas and picadors.

 

It seemed that some matadors were not so lucky.  In early July 2016, 29 year old professional matador Victor Bario was tossed into the air and then gored in a bullfight in eastern town of Teruel.  He died on the way to the hospital.  Incidentally Victor Barrio was at the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival in Madrid in May 2016.  He was probably one of the matadors on the Wednesday bullfight that I attended in Las Ventas.

 

Once the matador gained control over the bull, a picador (wearing wide flat hats) sitting squarely on horseback, entered the arena for that final spike of the lance to inflict injury to the large muscle on top of the bull’s neck, the “morrillo”.  There was argument made by a veterinary group in a Madrid’s university, claiming that with each spike of the picador’s lance or the matador’s sword, the fighting bull would release high levels of beta endorphin hormones which produce pleasure, switching off the pain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk). Spain’s animal-rights group may not agree.

 

THE COUP DE GRACE

The final phase was the matador’s one-on-one encounter with the bull using the famous one-handed red cape, the “muleta.   The performance with the muleta, was the climax of the matador’s artistic display. The matador strove to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance which culminated in the killing of the bull.  A skilled matador could kill a bull with one artistic pass and a swift, precise single thrust of the steel blade into the bull’s neck (the coup de grace).   The perfect kill comes from a perfect sword thrust accompanied by a stroke of good luck.

 

A few tourists left halfway through the bullfight, unable to continue watching the gory scene. The dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses as  the entire  stadium grew aesthetic.  The crowd sparked by intense euphoria and chanting all the time, rushed into the midst of the arena to ‘shoulder’ and parade the king of matadors around the arena.  Even though Ernest Hemingway never apologized for it, there is no other way of looking at bullfighting as just a systematic and brutal killing of an animal for sport, putting aside the artistry of matador passes and technical precision using the banderillas and the cape.

 

Opinion polls have shown that 60% of Spaniards do not want the bullfighting tradition to continue. Despite the argument that bullfight enthusiasts put forth that execution of passes and the final kill is a dance of skill and art, the animal rights activists claimed that bullfighting is a cruel, barbarous blood sport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow tortuous death.

 

It seemed that bulls killed in the Las Ventas are sent to a slaughterhouse.  In Portugal, it is unlawful to kill the bull but in Spain, the bull is killed at  the end of the bullfight.  As one matador, Juan Jose Padilla put it, “In our culture, bulls are born to be killed” (vice.com, Guille Alvarez, June 2017).  I thought I saw  a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Madrid’s Las Ventas, suggesting “rabo de toro de lidia” which is a stew made of the tails of fighting bulls which came from the bullring.   Bull meat has a wild taste because the bull dies in the fever of the fight, according to http://www.livescience.com.

 

There were two images that would haunt me for a very long time.  One was when the bull’s legs buckled under him, staggering and collapsing as the steel blade was driven into the back of his neck in the midst of the cheering and screaming of approvals by the stadium.  The other was when the dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses for everyone to see.

 

During the long walk back to the hotel, I began to understand why, on my way to the Plaza de Toros, the taxi driver kept asking me if I knew anything about bullfights and if I was really sure I wanted to watch one! No matter how one sees it, a bullfight is just a cruel, elaborate dance of death between man and beasts.

(May, 2016,  1133 words)