Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Beautiful Art of Rejoneo - Bullfighters on Horseback

Portuguese rejoneador Diego Ventura fights a bull in Burgos, Spain (Photo/Albino Jimenez)
The bull needed to die but could not. He stood looking dully ahead, his shoulders slicked with blood oozing from the eight darts sticking in them. A sword stuck out of his back. Cuadrilleros, the bullfighter’s helpers, swarmed around. The matador who had made the weak stab walked up, studying the bull’s face. The spell was bad. The crowd was uneasy. We watched. Cuadrilleros prepared to chop the spinal cord. The matador stopped them. He raised his hand, palm outward as if appealing for peace.
The bull was already at peace. He didn’t want to fight any more. He needed to die but could not. We waited. The bull stood. It was taking too long. The people murmured. The matador had performed poorly.

Then the bull fell, toppled more than collapsed. He laid still, his legs sticking stiffly out. The blade had finally done its job. Relieved, the crowd gave scattered applause. A team of three mules trotted in, pulling a long singletree, and dragged the dead bull out. His broad flank made a smooth curving path in the dirt.

The matador was from a wealthy family, Albino told me. Perhaps he didn’t need to fight bulls for money and only did it for women and glory. He walked away dejected. He would not gain the bull’s ears or tail, the prizes awarded to a matador for a good kill.

My companion Albino Jimenez and I were celebrating July 4th in Burgos, Spain. Earlier, we had found a restaurant called Richi’s that Albino had heard served American-style food. We ordered the classic—hamburgers and fries. In my pocket was a small piece of cardboard cut from a Band-Aid box. It was folded over and taped at the edges. Sandwiched inside were two toothpicks topped by tiny American flags, the kind you find sticking in the muffins at a backyard cookout in Tennessee, which is exactly where I had found them a few weeks earlier, at my sister’s cookout in Mount Juliet.

We stuck the flagged toothpicks in the hamburgers and sang the Star Spangled Banner. Then honoring the American tradition of violence, we decided to go to a bullfight.
It was Saturday afternoon, the last day of an eight-day bullfighting festival bearing the ponderous name Feria Taurina San Pedro y San Pablo, a festival so grand that one saint was not enough. It took Saint Peter and Saint Paul both.

This last evening was reserved for a historic kind of bullfighting known as corrida de rejones, developed hundreds of years ago for training the cavalry. In rejones, the matador works from horseback. He sticks the eight barbed darts known as banderillas into the bull’s shoulders, and he kills the bull from horseback, too.

We’d just seen the first matador of three, Fermín Bohórquez, who was 39 years old. Although his record was respectable, luck had not been with him on today’s bull. In 2007, his best recent year, he appeared in 60 events, gaining 107 ears and five tails. He would fight one more bull here today. Perhaps he dreaded it.

The matadors appeared in order of increasing skill. Hermoso de Mendoza, 43, was next. He appeared in 120 bullfight festivals in 2007, gaining 278 ears and 33 tails. In 2008 his production dropped to less than half that. The festival program described him as “…without doubt the best rejoneador of all time.” Still plenty formidable at 43, he was maybe no longer as quick or as strong as he had been. His age favored a decline.

The third matador, Diego Ventura, was from Lisbon, Portugal. At 27 years of age, the youngest, he had gained the position of headliner. He appeared in 63 festivals in 2008, gaining 167 ears and 16 tails. He turned out to be a cheerful crowd pleaser, carrying out his deadly work with the exuberant glee of a kid having a water fight, smiling broadly and gesturing with raised arms after each good move, seeking approval and getting it.

It is the bravery, intelligence, and athletic skill of the horse that amazes the most. The horse wears no armor, yet works inches from the bull’s horns. One lucky upthrust can rip his belly open, letting his entrails slip heavy-sliding into the dirt. For the horse, stakes are grave.
The bull’s charges are quick. The horse must avoid the horns with better quickness, yet bring his rider in close enough to plant banderillas and thrust the sword.

Altogether, the matador sticks eight banderillas into the bull’s shoulders, four on each side. Their colorful handles dangle downward, rolling and pulling the flesh where the barb entered. This helps infuriate the bull. On the last set, the matador inserts both barbs at once, one in each shoulder. It must be done powerfully and quickly.

Horse and rider communicate by unknown magic. As the bull charges, the rider leans far out, holding no reins, tilting his body nearly horizontal in order to reach the bull’s shoulders, a banderilla in each hand. The horse knows what his rider needs in this vulnerable position. He must be precise in permitting the charging bull to come close, while yet avoiding the horns. If he makes an unexpected step he could dump the rider on the horns.

The horse of Ventura knew where the limit was. Once, the bull got just close enough to rake a four-inch gash up his ham. The cut turned bright red in the afternoon sun.

A rejoneador uses three horses to kill each bull, substituting when his horse grows tired. The work is strenuous, and the horse needs rest. Toro competes against a relay, getting no such rest.

A horse can outrun a bull. That is not his normal job, but Ventura’s had a special trick he sometimes showed a charging bull. The horse ran, staying just inches in front of the horns, his tail practically in the bull’s face. Then he did a full-circle pirouette, maintaining his forward motion and distance from the bull all the while. This required that he run sideways to the right, backwards, sideways to the left, and finally forward again, outpacing the bull throughout the rotation. This move delighted the people. The crowd roared its approval.

He had another trick. Bull and horse stood facing each other, taking measure. The horse then raked the ground a few times with his hoof, like a bull does. Then he straightened his leg and pointed it at the bull. A horse can’t talk. But this one spoke clearly. Everyone understood him:

“You, Toro! I’m talking to you! Bring your best.”

Toro could not know that no bull ever left the arena, not until the mules dragged him out. All he could do was fight hard. And die bravely.

Ventura delighted the crowd and killed his bull. In the last moment, after he’d already thrust the sword, he jumped off the horse and ran up to Toro, shaking his finger in his face, scolding Toro in words we could not hear.

Bohórquez, the first matador, who’d had hard luck, must have watched this dominating performance. Now it came time for his second bull.

And his luck had not improved. Unlike Ventura’s smiling countenance, Bohórquez’s face wore a sweaty red scowl. It seemed hard for him. He even failed to plant one of the banderillas. It fell out and laid there. He couldn’t erase that failure or cover it up. The garish proof, red and white, lay in the dirt mocking him.

Finally he rode to the wall and called for the sword. The trumpet played the lonely tune it plays before a bull dies. Toro charged, but the sword of Bohórquez did not strike. A matador must hit a small spot and shove the blade completely in, a demanding athletic challenge. Bohórquez brought the bull in close, charge after charge. But he could not make himself strike. We wondered what he was waiting for. Something like target panic had gripped him. He couldn’t pull the trigger. It was like a baseball pitcher losing his stuff.

“He’s lost his confidence,” I said.

“Yeah.” Albino could see it too. All the people could. The humiliation was very public.

When the sword finally did plunge, it was tentative and puny. Toro stood, half the blade sticking out of his back. He had won. The matador could not kill him.

But he had to die anyway. A cuadrillero rushed up and chopped his spinal cord. Toro fell in a heap. Bohórquez walked away frustrated and took up a position behind the wall near us, the scowl solid on his face. No one spoke to him.

The second bull of Ventura was the finale. As before, the cocky Portuguese dazzled the crowd with his playful confidence and nonchalant flair, gleefully working the bull. Bohórquez watched it all.

When the sword of Ventura fell, no part of it was left showing except the handle, sticking out of the back of the bull. Toro stood perfectly still. Ventura jumped out of the saddle and ran up to him, nearly touching his face. The triumphant matador dropped to one knee, spread his arms back wide and thrust his chest into the face of Toro, mocking the stricken bull. The people cheered wildly.

Toro didn’t move. He didn’t care. He looked at Ventura with dead eyes. Bulbous strings of crimson slobber drooled from his mouth, and red foam gathered at his nostrils.

Toro collapsed. The crowd roared. Ventura strutted, arms high. The people waved scarves, handkerchiefs, hats, anything they had. The stands turned to a stirring white flurry. Raucous applause continued. The judge, who was positioned behind and above us, flopped a tassel onto the front of his desk—it looked like a bull’s tail. It meant one ear.

They go by the crowd’s reaction; they have a computer to help them, Albino told me. A cuadrillero cut off one of the bull’s ears and handed it to the matador. He held the ear high, walking in front of the cheering people, and then threw it to some waving hands. Cheering continued. The judge flopped out another tassel. And again, Ventura strutted, holding the ear up for all to see before throwing it in the stands.

Cheering persisted but tapered off a bit before the judge could award the tail. It depends on the place, Albino said. Some towns are harder than others. Ventura had to settle for two ears, a triumph nonetheless.

I glanced at Bohórquez, the hard-luck matador. He had watched it all. He stood alone behind the wall. The scowl was hard on his face.