Blood on the Arena Floor

Originally published in Shape magazine

The seventh bull, Alberto López Simón’s last, enters the ring — big and charcoal black. In the fierce evening sun it is disoriented, confused by the noise and the strong smell of cigar smoke coming from the crowd. On a whim, and without direction, it charges hopelessly at nothing. The sun-light shines off its silky hide and a long strand of saliva swings from its mouth. The crowd becomes quiet.

Surreptitiously, López Simón slips into the ring. He is tall, thin, with dark brown eyes and a timid expression. He is unassuming, not the type of man you would expect to see in the arena.

“Toro, toro,” he growls, throwing out the large cape like a table cloth. The bull turns its hulking mass in his direction, but it doesn’t move.“Toro, toro,” López Simón barks again, flicking the cape more vigorously.

The bull lowers its head, stomps the sand with its hooves, snorts, and charges: 500kg of muscle, reared on a specialist ranch in the Spanish country for the sole purpose of this moment — hurtles towards a skinny man in a frilly suit.

Six hours earlier López Simón is in his hotel room alone, reading. It is a routine he follows before every fight. It gives him time to disconnect from what he is about to do.

“I like to be alone and without distraction,” he says. “Some Toreros prefer to be with their friends, but that only makes me feel anxious and irritable.”

That morning he still feels uneasy, however. He shifts uncomfortably on his bed, unable to concentrate on the words in his book. He is full of uncertainty and nerves. He is scared of failure.

López Simón is Spain’s most talented young torero. But unlike a lot of famous toreros, he does not come from a bullfighting background. Born in Madrid in 1990 to a middle-class family, his mother and father work for the Spanish airline Iberia. Neither was interested in bulls, and they never encouraged the young Alberto to become a fighter. It was only when he started making regular trips to a friend’s ranch that he discovered the world of tauromaquia. “Every time I went there, a part of me stayed,” he says. “There I saw bulls roaming free in the countryside, I read about the bravery of the great Toreros, and I wanted a part of that life.”

As he grew up his friends encouraged him. To them, being a matador was a noble and daring pursuit. So, at 14-years-old, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, López Simón applied to bullfighting school in Madrid, one of several academies in Spain teaching the art of tauromaquia. There, he learned everything from how to face up to the bull to how to kill it.

His teachers saw in him a bravery they had seen in few others. He got closer to the bull’s horns and he made more audacious passes with the cape than the rest of the students. Very early on they thought he performed with the same poise as the great Jose Tomas, perhaps the modern era’s best bullfighter. They were certain he could become a great torero.

Outside of school, López Simón was not the typical bullfighting student. Every aspect of López Simón’s private life ran counter to the showmanship of his public one. Unlike many of his companions, who throbbed with the bravado of their career choice, López Simón was reserved, soft-spoken. He liked to be around people, but would also escape to the countryside, where he would go on long walks alone. He read voraciously, and especially enjoyed the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Graham Greene.

Four years after he joined the school he made his professional debut, and four years later was fighting in some of Spain’s most prestigious arenas, alongside some of its best matadors. In bullfighting circles, perhaps less so in the rest of Spain, López Simón became a very respected name.

Now his success has taken him to Ronda, a large town located in Andalusia. He had been invited to perform at the Goyesca, an annual festival in which one of the highest-profile bullfights takes place in Spain’s oldest bullfighting arena. The festival had been organized by the Ordóñezs, the most famous family in the taurine world. López Simón knows the festival’s history; he knows that some of the biggest names are coming to watch him, and he knows that the Ordoñez brothers have given him this chance to perform. But, at just 26, he is aware of one matter more than the rest: he cannot fail.

“More than death, I’m afraid of failure,” he tells me. And failure, to López Simón, is not entertaining the crowd with his art.

Because in Spain la corrida de toros is considered an artform, at least to its apologists. To call it a sport is to diminish its appeal and ignore its nuance. Yes, it requires athleticism, but it has no internal logic or end result —  neither the matador nor the bull wins if either one dies. Instead, it’s about both the bull and the Torero complimenting each other the way dance partners do — each accentuating the other’s majesty. It is a brutal dance, whose intention is to recreate and represent aspects of the human condition — the euphoria, the suffering and the bitter sadness of the bloody union.

For López Simón, la corrida de toros is far from a form of torture, or cruel bloodsport, as it is often portrayed. “For me, the corrida replicates the cycle of life. We are born, we live, and we die,” he tells me. “What fills the torero with pride and emotion is that the animal they are fighting has the chance to show its majesty, its strength, and bravery in front of thousands of people; it has the opportunity to create art. The bulls that live and die in farms do not have that chance.” The bulls live for three to five years in large open fields and away from the presence of humans, he says. They are afforded every possible luxury and live far better lives than the majority of cows that end up on our plates. People who berate the corrida are hypocrites, he says.

But López Simón  does not have any compelling moral argument as to whether the corrida is right or wrong. He leaves you straddling the divide between metaphor and brutality. On the one hand, the spectacle goes beyond merely a repugnant display of animal torture, with a deeper artistic value. But, on the other, does that value justify the death of the animal? López Simón may exalt in the bull’s performance, but does that matter if the bull is an unwilling participant?

It is this irreconcilable conflict that has seen Spain becomes less and less enamoured with the art in recent years. Bullfights all over Spain are losing popularity; the number of spectacles per year has dropped significantly, regions outside of Catalonia (the first Spanish region to ban the event) are talking about getting rid of it altogether.A recent poll conducted by World Animal Protection showed that only 19 per cent of Spaniards will openly defend the corrida, down from 30 per cent three years ago. More ominous for the event’s future is that 84 per cent of people between 18 and 24 oppose it completely.

This is why López Simón’s rise is so very important for the corrida’s survival. Most other toreros are aging into their forties; López Simón is a part of the age-group that most despises the sport. According to some commentators, his is the face and personality that can convince a younger generation of Spanish citizens to fall in love again with the bullfight.

Watching himself in the mirror, López Simón sees the white trails of scars that run up and down his wiry frame. They are the price he has paid for his renown. “Sometimes the bull must charge his share too,” he tells me.

During the season, which starts in April and ends in October, López Simón repeats this routine, in front of some hotel mirror in some distinct part of Spain, some sixty times a year. Sixty times, he prepares himself for the same sounds, the same faces, the same stages of the bullfight and at the end the same smell of blood.

Structurally, a corrida de toros is divided up into thirds or tercios, each marking a distinct stage of the performance.The first stage, the tercio de varas, commences with the bull entering the ring to be tested for strength and bravery by the matador with his capote- a magenta and gold cape. Next, the picador, a man on horseback who carries a long lance, enters the ring and encourages the bull to charge h horse. When this eventually happens the Picador aims to stab the morillo, the massive mound of muscle that sits behind the bull’s neck, with his lance. The objective here is to weaken the bull.

Act two is that of the banderillas. As Hemingway describes them in a Dangerous Afternoon “these are pairs of sticks about a yard long,  with a large harpoon-shaped steel point four centimetres long at each end.” These are stabbed, normally two at a time by the matador’s assistants, called banderilleros, into the bull’s shoulders.

The final stage is called the tercio de muerte (“the third of death”). First, the matador will dedicate the bull, in a brindis, to member of his family, a friend, or to the audience as a whole. Then he re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape, called la muleta.  This part is known amongst aficionados as the faena, the display, and is where the art of la corrida exists. The matador will work the bull in a series of passes in an attempt to demonstrate his virtuosity. When the matador has judged that the bull has no more art left to give, and is ready to die, he fetches his killing sword, la estocada,  and lines up the bull for the kill.

López Simón repeats this process, risking possible injury or death 160 times a season. Many of his fellow toreros say that, in spite of López Simón’s implacable routine, he fights each bull with the same passion as the last. He fights as if forgetting the parameters of his own body, so close does he get to the animal.

“I do not want to let the audience down,” he tells me. “They invest in me each time they come to watch, and out of a sense of conscientiousness, for my own pride, too, I always endeavour to justify such an investment.”

Indeed, so determined is he to put on a good show that he was gored three times last year. On one of these occasions, he lost consciousness on the way to the hospital. In another time, he probably would have died. “Getting gored can be complicated,” he says, “Not just from a physical point of view, but also psychologically. It affects your confidence, increases your fear, and ruins your performance.” As López has become more experienced, he has accepted that such emotions and preoccupations are part of his job, and that to be good at it, he needs to use fear rather than let it use him.

“One of the first things I learned when I went to bullfighting school was that a bull might take your life, but it can never take away your glory,” he says.

López Simón pulls on his suit. Then he meticulously combs his hair into place. The scene appears somber; but, for López Simón, this is his routine, his way of warding of thoughts about his own death and the death of his dance partner.

The music starts, and so does the “tercio de la muerte”.

Both man and beast move back and forth to the accompaniment of the brass band. As López Simón snaps his wrist the bull rears its body. As he turns, the bull trails behind him, and when López Simón drops to his knee and makes passes at a lower height, the animal follows.

For ten minutes the pair move in unison, the bull obedient to the relentless twitch of the red cape, not because of the colour; the bull is entranced by the movement. It’s why a windy day can be dangerous. But today, the air and the crowd are both breathless. Spectators swoon to their every movement. This dance continues until the bull, exhausted and caked in its blood from its encounters with the cape moments ago, slacked-jawed and panting, will no longer follow.

In a final flourish, López Simón, still on one knee, shuffles yet closer to his weakened partner and, squaring up to the bull’s haggard face, he places his head between its horns. He holds it there, mere centimetres from a possible death, for a full minute. The crowd screams with horror and joy.

Next, his sword is held in his right hand and out in front of his body, the muleta kept low to the ground to his left. He stands on his tiptoes so that he is able to look over the bull’s horns and to his target, just below the nook of the neck. He contorts his face as he breathes, and then with a final grunt and swish of the cape he jumps into the bull.

It just stands there, dazed, as if unaware of the 50 centimetre hole in its back. Then it lets out a haunting groan, blood dripping from its mouth. Suddenly, the bull’s legs go and it drops. López Simón moves away to celebrate, as the crowd rises to congratulate him.

But such celebrations are fleeting. Twenty years ago, in Spain, still newly freed from the clutches of its Fascist past, less concerned with the abhorrence of its neighbouring states, the young Matador might have been a household name. However, in spite of all his skill and audacity, López Simón is like a silent film star in a firmament that’s already changed. The public has firmly turned its back on the bullring, and his chances of winning it over are dwindling. Still, in that moment, the dying art can’t take away his glory.

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