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THE WANDER YEAR

Learning About Courage and Beauty From the Beast

WEEK 33: SPAIN / * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

September 24, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

MADRID — I got ballet the first time I went. I didn't get bullfighting until my sixth go. My grasp of both came on a recent visit to Spain's capital.

Andrea and I had the weekend off from Spanish school in Avila. To maximize our time, we took the 90-minute train to Madrid on Friday afternoon and returned early Monday morning before class. We made our way through several tapas bars, sipped cafe con leche on the Plaza Mayor and strolled through the sprawling flea market El Rastro. But the highlights of the jaunt were the ballet and the bullfight.

The National Ballet of Cuba was at the Teatro Albeniz. My resistance to ballet has been so strong that Andrea asked whether I was sure I wanted to go even as we were buying the tickets. I always thought the ballet was for people with closets full of tuxedos and gowns. I also assumed you had to be an expert to enjoy it.

It's fitting the company performed part of "Carmen," much of which is set in and around a bullring. When the curtain went up, I shifted in my seat, expecting to be bored. But I was taken by the story of the gypsy Carmen and her ill-fated affair with the soldier Don Jose. I was dazzled by the dancers, the costumes, the music of Georges Bizet, and far from dragging, the evening passed too soon.

It hit me that you don't need to be an expert to appreciate ballet. It didn't matter that I don't know the names of the steps and jumps, or that I had never heard of Alicia Alonso, the company's director and one of the legends of dance. All that mattered was that I could finally recognize ballet as this beautiful blend of art and athleticism. Had I skipped "Rocky V" or passed on my 37th Grateful Dead concert, I might have had time for this epiphany much earlier in life.

The next day, we took the Metro to the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, the largest bullring in the world. The jostling crowd and the buzz of anticipation reminded me of riding the subway to Yankee Stadium when we lived in New York. We plopped rented cushions on the third row of concrete seats in the sol y sombra (sun and shade) section of the arena. A few rows in the adjacent, pricier shady section were filled with Japanese tourists, many looking nervous about what they might soon see. Spaniards seated around us smoked cigars and drank whiskey; a few chatted on cell phones.

I had seen five previous bullfights (two with Andrea) in other cities in Spain and in Mexico. Madrid is the major league of the corrida (bullfight), so I expected something grand, but it was the same. The stands were mostly empty, and spectators didn't display the passion common at international soccer matches.

The first two bullfights on this day's card went to form: The bull charges into the ring, where after a brief encounter with the matador, he meets the picador, a man on horseback who plunges a lance between the bull's shoulders. The bleeding animal now faces the banderilleros, who take turns jabbing colorfully adorned prods into the bull's back. The matador returns with a muleta (red cloth) he uses to maneuver the bull around him in various passes. At the fatal moment, the matador sinks his sword into the back of the bull's neck, piercing the lungs. A brass band strikes up a festive tune as the carcass is dragged off.

The third matador of the day was Rodolfo Nunez, the best on the card, and he drew a 1,100-pound bull named Avispado, the Spanish word for "smart" or "clever." Nunez worked close enough for the bull to smear blood on the matador's traje de luces (suit of lights). On one pass, Avispado turned his head from the muleta, catching Nunez with his horns and flinging him into the air. The matador landed in the dirt and covered up, the bull stomping and horning him.

Nunez's assistants rushed in to distract the bull with their capes. Nunez scrambled to his feet, limping and bleeding from his hand. He angrily waved off his helpers and aligned himself with the bull for the kill. The sword deeply buried in Avispado, Nunez stood before the faltering bull, fixing him with enraged eyes, taunting him with words and pointing at him, until the animal collapsed. As a helper stabbed the bull to finish him off, the matador arched his back, posturing and preening.

But like a character in a scary movie who isn't dead when you think he is, Avispado somehow sprang to life. The bull struggled to his feet and lurched at Nunez. The matador, rattled and embarrassed, stalked the stumbling bull about the ring, at turns mocking and scolding him. When Avispado halted near the perimeter, Nunez sat on the foot railing circling the inside of the wooden fence and crossed his legs, pretending to share a park bench with the bull.

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