When I decided to move to France, bullfights never entered my mind. I had never thought of a French Bullfight. Did traditional Spanish events exist in the south of France?
Years ago, I attended a bullfight in Spain. It was the “thing to do” for a 20-something college kid visiting Barcelona. All I remember about it was that I bought a poster; I carried it around for years, and life went on.
This summer, I was invited to a bullfight in Nimes. Visions of bulls, matadors, and swinging red capes have been swirling in my head ever since.
I had no idea bullfights were such a big deal in France. In Nimes, they’re called “corridas” and draw quite a crowd. My first corrida was a full-fledged “Feria” in the ancient Roman arena.
French Bullfight: The Feria de Nimes
Downtown Nimes was packed with people of all ages for the Feria de Nimes. There were white-topped tents with food and drink set up around the arena as far as you could see. Music poured into the streets and alleys from every bar and café. Vendors selling matador capes and flamenco dresses lined up next to hawkers with tickets, t-shirts, and posters. The circus-like atmosphere was exhilarating.
Close to five o’clock in the afternoon, the raucous crowd around the cafes and drink stands started moving toward the arena.
Along with others, I filed into the spectator area of the “Plaza de Toros” to find my reserved seat. Climbing very cautiously up the rough stone steps into the “bleachers” of the two thousand-year-old coliseum, I found my place. Better said, I found my “stone seat with backrest.” Fortunately, it was out of the blazing hot sun.
Once in my place, I noticed the people around me were quiet. Almost silent. The sounds of piped-in music filled the space that I had expected to be boisterous, like a pre-game football stadium.
In no time, my mind wandered off. My imagination kicked in. I was transported to another time, same place.
It was Roman days again, in this arena in Nimes, with onlookers gathered to see a gory contest of men against beasts.
When the band started playing and the pomp and ceremony of the paséillo began, it was if the first act of an extravagant ballet had begun to unfold before my eyes.
A dance with death. Put to music, with extravagant scenery. Skillfully orchestrated.
Feria de Nimes 2014
Act one – The “suerte de varas.”
Corridas have three acts. It’s been that way since early times. Hemingway calls Act One the “trail of the lances.”
The opening scene begins with a fighting bull on the stage. There are hundreds of unfamiliar sounds and objects around him. At first, he is dazed, and then he’s angry. He runs around the arena, butting his head into anything that gets in his path.
Two horses with riders come onto the stage (picadors.)
The bull sees only one of the horses. He recognizes it as a target from his days in the wild.
The bull charges. His impact on the horse’s underside picks the horse off the ground momentarily. Until now, the bull hasn’t seen the rider on the horse. The picador, carrying a sharp-ended rod, stabs the bull between the shoulder blades. The bull, seemingly undaunted, pulls back and strikes the horse again.
The act is over when the “president” of the bullring — an official appointed by law to supervise the corrida—- signals the bugler to blow his horn.
The bull thinks he’s the winner. Everyone else has left the stage.
Act two features a troupe of fancy-dressed “banderilleros ” who run the bull nearly breathlessly around the ring. Hemingway calls Act Two the “sentencing.” The dastardly banderilleros with flying darts appear in the scene only to taunt the injured bull. The fact they play an important role in the drama of man vs. beast is not at first apparent.
Done well, Act Two is over quickly, without destroying the bravery and strength of the bull.
Act three is the “execution.” The Spanish call this act the “moment of truth.” It is performed in fifteen minutes. The curtain opens with the matador on center stage. Waving a red-caped muleta in his left hand, he waltzes around to show how artfully he dominates the bull. If the animal hooks from one side or another, the matador corrects his charge.
He makes the bull lower his head.
To kill the bull quickly, the matador must drive the sword between the bull’s shoulder blades. In doing so, the matador is in line with the bull’s horns. One wrong move can mean death.
With the muleta in their left hand and a sword in his right hand, the matador urges the bull forward. He strikes from the front, driving the sword in smoothly.
The bull dies.
Bulls often survive the strike of the sword. It takes a perfect hit by the matador to lay the huge creature dead. For a matador to fell a bull with one sword in the correct position, he is highly praised and rewarded.
The story of the “Dance with Death” is fairly simple. It is the story of a fighting bull and a matador who meet in a crowded arena and fight for glory and honor to the death. Through the story, actors with minor parts parade on stage with colorful fanfare.
For thirty minutes of the performance, the bull and the matador try to kill each other. The matador gets a lot of help from his friends. The bull, however, is nobody’s fool. He shows his innate ability to spar with each aggressor, to self-protect, and to prove what the Spanish call “his nobility.”
It seems, at times, the bull might win.
A twist in the story comes when the matador, seeing the bull in his full glory, realizes that he has fallen in love with the bull. But he must kill him.
The matador has fifteen minutes to decide between love and glory.
He brings the bull close to him for their last “dance with death. ” He weighs his options: “kill my beloved ” or “miss the final act of my masterpiece.”
The outcome of the drama is a mystery until the end of the last act.
The bravery of the bull is at the heart of the Corrida drama. The honor of the matador determines the outcome. There are no re-runs, no second seasons with the cast. Like other art forms, the truth and beauty is for the beholder.
Since the Feria de Nimes, I have attended twenty or more corridas in the south of France. I’ve read books by Hemingway and studied books and articles by experts who love bullfights and by those who hate them. I’ve also done a lot of soul-searching.
I’m an animal lover. It’s not pleasant to see an animal killed in front of my eyes.
In my research, a statement by Orson Welles, a great American filmmaker and writer, helped me understand how I can draw a line between the “animal-lover” part of my brain and the part that appreciates corridas.
“Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides, or you don’t…. 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.”