Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Daniel Luque y Manuel Escribano, ´mano a mano´ en Sevilla, 20 Abril 2014

"Cinco Euros" he says, eyeing the €5 note I have proferred expecting change. A brief pause and stare before I relent, never having been to La Maestranza before and not knowing local prices. He hands me a thick cushion, different to the skinny ones that are being wielded by the rest of the crowd. These, I later discover, cost €1.50, which is much more like it. With a slightly clouded mood I enter the Plaza de Toros.

The event is a 'mano a mano' involving two local fighters, Manuel Escribano and Daniel Luque. Bullfights normally have three fighters for six bulls, so the mano a mano is a special occasion designed as a kind of "bull-off", where the two matadors compete directly against one another. In this case the dramatic tension is defused by the fact that everyone is keen to show that they're all jolly good friends, so there's endless back-slapping, thumbs-upping and general mutual appreciation. The bulls will be Miura. Miura is the best breed. They have always been the best. The biggest. The bravest. The people have come to this fight to see the bulls, today the fighters are merely the backing dancers. Escribano did well here last year, Luque is quite up and coming, both are from Sevilla, but really its all about the bulls.

So we're underway and Manuel Escribano is up first. Though he is 30 and experienced, he seems young, with a tall, amiable, sandy-haired Australian look to him. He makes his intentions clear by preparing to greet the first charge on his knees, a crowd-pleaser. The gambit doesn't quite work, and the swirl of the cape lacks the elegant flourish that it should have had. The matador scrambles up, and he and his team move the animal around with their capes, but it is rushed and lacks control; they all seem rather green. We push through the next two rounds and its time to place the banderilleros. Rather than letting his team do it, Escribano steps forward with the two hooked sticks in his own hands. He raises the sticks like horns, a signal the bull cannot misunderstand, and, on receiving the desired charge, begins to run at right angles away from the bull, causing it to swerve its run. At the moment of contact, the sticks are placed haphazardly into its back, he is not facing the bull straight on with his armpits over its horns, his feet do not leave the ground and land proudly on their heels, it is not an imperious display. The second pair follow in similar fashion. For his third pair he goes to meet the bull by the side of the ring. He sits on the narrow bannister, knee-height on the wall of the ring, about 10 feet from the bull, which is a little further round, and he shouts. 'Toro!'. The bull glances at him, but chooses to ignore him, looking back at the banderillero behind the barrier who had been keeping it in place with teasing flashes of cape. 'Toro!' he shouts again from his seated position, vainly holding up his sticks. Suddenly he is an indignant child in its high chair, stripped of power and grace, and the crowd begin to mutter darkly. Few sins are greater than a matador losing his dignity. He gives up, and delivers the banderilleros in standard manner; we move on, unimpressed. It is time for the faena, the great dance of death where a fighter makes his name. Just him and his red cape and his sword. But he never gains control of the bull. He moves it all around the ring, and begins to take greater and greater risks, standing close to the horns and with the cape behind his body. But his arrogant gestures of defiance fail to convince, and we watch uneasily, wary as to what might happen. Finally it is time for the kill; if this is done well he will probably receive an ovation from the notoriously miserly Sevilla crowd. He places the bull and assumes the pose. One knee cocked, head to one side, eye looking along the horizontal sword towards its target, left hand holding the cape low to keep the animal's head down. A swift movement and the crowd groans; the sword has only entered halfway, the upper half protrudes from between the shoulders. The banderilleros move in and begin to move the bull sharply from left to right with their capes, but it is hopeless, there is no way the sword has penetrated deep enough to reach the heart. Escribano fetches another sword and approaches the bull again, but the trumpet sounds and his time is up, he must now execute the bull as quickly as possible, all hope of an ovation now extinguished. The bull is no longer interested in the cape, so its team of executioners are now following it slowly around the ring, sword still standing out of its back. Finally it turns, and the capes are used to keep its head low while Escribano chooses his spot towards the back of its head. He tries to sever the spinal chord once, the bull jerks away after the blow, twice, a third time. The crowd are losing patience. Finally it is done, and Escribano glances up and pulls a face at the nearby crowd, 'fuerte eh?'. The bull receives boos and whistles as it is dragged away by the horses. Escribano departs to a sullen silence and we are onto the next.

Daniel Luque, 25, cuts a more traditional and serious figure. His name is familiar, though he is not yet a member of the top order of fighters. He indulges in the old matador superstition by removing his hat and dropping it over his shoulder; but it lands headside up, and the crowd sighs with disappointment, he stoops to turn it over. He allows his banderilleros to greet the bull, and performs some steady capework himself. The bull is barrel-chested, with a scrabbling, stubby-legged running action rather like a jack russell; it is not agile. Luque is confident and practised, though he takes many tiny steps to get into position, like a squash player or breakdancer. This aids his technique but it is not in the tradition of the great Belmonte, who created the modern method by forcing the bull to pass him on his terms, rather than moving himself around it. The picadores complete their work and Luque lets his team plant the banderillas, everything is conducted with clockwork efficiency and much confidence, but very little flair. For the faena, Luque again demonstrates strong technique, moving the cape well in windy conditions, a difficult feat, but he is not tempted by any Escribano-esque stunts or risks. It is time for the killing, and Luque dispatches his bull swiftly and efficiently in one attempt. The crowd is left slightly nonplussed, but it has been smooth work. The bull is booed. Luque receives a half-hearted ovation.

The third bull promises to be something special. It weighs 607 kilograms where its predecessors were 555 and 539. Now surely we will see a truly great Miura bull. The ever eager Escribano is unfazed by the prospect, and again settles on his knees to await the Minotaur. The gate opens, and it is indeed a fine animal, with power and agility in equal measure, the crowd gasp, and then applaud. The momentarily forgotten Escribano suddenly seems to realize his plight, finding himself on his knees facing the real deal, and his flourishing cape turns into a panicked abort. He rolls over and over, cape flailing, as the bull charges in, horns down, like a dog chasing a rolling cigar. After what seems an age the banderilleros arrive on the scene and provide distraction, and Escribano is helped up and attempts to recover some dignity. The trumpets sound rather wobbly as they announce the next round, is everyone afraid of this bull? The picadores are soon in attendance, and the crowd murmurs its approval as the great Miura proceeds to push the padded horse and man sideways for ten yards in a long rolling mall which is barely ever seen in the ring. In the next tercio, as Escribano prepares to place his banderillos, one spectator has seen enough. A flicker of activity and a long-haired, topless Spaniard is leaping into the ring, waving his flapping shirt as he charges towards the rear of the distracted bull. The day he fought a great Miura will be an anecdote for his grandchildren, if he survives to tell it. But the banderilleros are too quick for him, and emerge from every corner of the ring, while the bull, transfixed by the man behind the nearest barrier, remains completely unaware of the tussle for his attention that is underway behind him. The invader is wrestled to the side, and pulled over the wall by the neck, into a gang of waiting policia. His remonstrations continue as he is frog-marched to the exit in front of a conflicted crowd, dismayed by his uncouthness but pleased by his bravery, he receives a mix of cheers and boos, his remonstrations become targeted towards the crowd. Escribano's banderillo work this time is impressive, and includes the move from a seated position which had so exposed him in the previous fight. But something has happened to the bull between entry and faena, and when Escribano steps up to dance the final act it refuses to play its part. Escribano is left with an almost docile lump of beef, and the crowd soon tires of his attempts to engage with it. He is ordered to 'kill it' by voices from around the auditorium, and his attempts to do so are again botched, though not as badly as in the first. The bull is booed, and Escribano receives some applause.

But now specks of rain are beginning to fall, and there are few sights more miserable than that of a wet Spaniard. Umbrellas appear at once, and the next fight will be watched between the widescreen frames of one's own umbrella and that of the spectator in front. It lashes down as Luque's team goes through the gears as before, and the young matador efficiently applies the finishing touch with his first attempt. A large group of tourists decides to leave between fourth and fifth fights, but they are too late, and they are left stranded by two lines of Spaniards at the front who are convinced that such a manouevre should have taken place sooner. The first tercio of the fifth fight is spent with this vertical column of about 15 spectators standing helpless while a Spanish white knight near the bottom remonstrates with the stolid traditionalists that refuse to move. Finally a security guard's attention is piqued, and he arrives to tell the immovable objects that they will move, and the dam is broken. This type of confrontation is a typical occurrence at the bullring.

The fifth and the sixth pass much as their predecessors. Undeterred by previous failures, Escribano begins on his knees for a third time, and finally he is able to successfully complete the move as he would like. Again the kill is not clean and yet again the bull is jeered. Luque's final bull is 625 kg but lacks the majesty of the third. Nevertheless he extracts a good fight from it and receives the warmest ovation of the day when he successfully dispatches it. The crowd, attracted by the Miura name, has seen six bad bulls, all of which were booed, and two sons of Sevilla, neither of whom achieved greatness. The night rain fills lightweight shoes as subdued Sevillanos trudge back to their bodegas, hoping that the Feria beginning on the 1st May will yield more satisfactory entertainment.

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