Monday, December 12, 2005

REV: Clubs de Taurino

Bullfights? Your Club or Mine?
By WARREN ST. JOHN, The New York Times, December 11, 2005


HERE'S something you don't see every day: 33 mostly middle-age New Yorkers sitting around a television set in a Midtown restaurant, watching a bullfight.

The setting, on a recent Thursday night, was a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan where the New York City Club Taurino - an organization of bullfighting enthusiasts - holds its monthly meetings. On the television: a videotape of a 1982 bullfight known to aficionados as the Corrida of the Century because it featured six especially ornery and energetic bulls and some of Spain's most revered matadors, including Luis Francisco Esplá.

Over tapas and a steady flow of wine, the group of women and men sat rapt for around 20 minutes, the silence punctuated occasionally by oohs and aahs, until Esplá pulled out the killing sword. The matador arched his back, tucked in his chin and narrowed his eyes ominously, staring down the blood-soaked beast before him.

"Complete psychological domination," said Lore Monnig, the club's president.

A moment later Esplá reached over the bull's horns and plunged the sword between its shoulder blades. The sword went in only halfway to the hilt, and the bull spun around angrily.

A few moments later it dropped to its knees, stood up and dropped again. For someone who had never seen a bullfight, the death of the bull was jarring.

"Let's applaud!" Ms. Monnig said. The group clapped. New York, it's safe to say, is not a bullfighting town. Even so, there is not one but two clubs in the city for bullfighting fans, with a total of about 240 members. They are part of a national network of such clubs, called peñas taurinas, and if the Thursday night gathering was any indication, the New York bullfighting scene is improbably vibrant.

The New York clubs meet once a month - usually at a Spanish restaurant or at a member's home - to eat, drink, watch videos and DVD's of bullfights, and occasionally to listen to speeches from matadors. Members see one another on bullfighting tours of Spain or Mexico and while running with the bulls in Pamplona. A few brave or simply foolish members are amateur bullfighters, called aficionados prácticos, who actually kill bulls themselves.

The clubs aren't underground exactly, but fearing animal rights protesters, they don't disclose to the public where they meet, and they don't recruit. (I agreed not to reveal the name of the restaurant where the club meets as a condition of attending a meeting.)

"We're not proselytizing," Ms. Monnig said. "I'm not trying to persuade anybody that they should have this passion too. I just hope they don't think I'm crazy."

As perhaps befits groups organized around the appreciation of mortal combat, the two New York City bullfighting clubs are themselves locked in a battle, one that seems unlikely to resolve itself soon, if ever. For nearly 40 years there was one bullfighting club in town, the Club Taurino of New York. But three years ago some members thought the club was becoming too social at its meetings, losing its focus on bullfighting. The rules they instituted prompted a chunk of its members, led by Ms. Monnig, to secede and form the New York City Club Taurino, which while bullfighting-obsessed, is nonetheless very social.

"Our club is more for purists," said Kevin Gordon, 51, a portrait painter and the president of the older club. "We do a lot of programs that explain the subtleties of the bullfight. The main thrust of our club is bullfighting."

There are a few points every bullfighting aficionado is quick to make to newcomers. The first is that they find the word bullfight objectionable, and prefer instead the Spanish word toreo to describe the standoff between man and bull.

"There is such a thing as a bull fight," Ms. Monnig said. "It's two bulls fighting in a field." The word bullfighting, she said, is "loaded and it doesn't describe what happens. You're not fighting a bull, you're trying to dominate it."

Another point: a club meeting is not the place to discuss the moral issues surrounding bullfighting. Robert Weldon, 33, a Spanish teacher at a public school in Manhattan, said that debate trails bullfighting enthusiasts everywhere they go, and a bullfighting club meeting is one place where they can talk about the technical aspects of the toreo.

"You don't want to get into the arguments - it's silly," Mr. Weldon said, before wearily stating the stock rejoinders: fighting bulls live more than twice as long as beef cattle; they are pampered until fighting day; the meat is always consumed; and seeing a bull die gives one a better appreciation of what it means to eat beef.

"In the modern world the bovine destiny is the plate," said Mr. Weldon, an aficionado práctico who has killed three bulls.

"It's not fair, and it's not supposed to be fair," he said. "It's not a sport, it's an art because the bull dies."

So what type of person joins a bullfighting club? The crowd at the Spanish restaurant included doctors, lawyers, writers and scientists. There were fluent Spanish speakers and few who knew a few clumsy but useful phrases: "Más vino, por favor."

Marta Sánchez-Carbayo, a cancer researcher in Manhattan who is from Spain, said she came to the meetings because they reminded her of home.

"It's like if you're in Madrid and you met people who know everything about the rodeo, or Walt Disney," she said. "They are Spain lovers."

Timothy Baum, a Manhattan art dealer who specializes in surrealism, said he was introduced to the New York City bullfighting scene by an aficionado in Spain who knew about the clubs.

"I initially got into it because I was devoted to Hemingway," Mr. Baum said. "A lot of people read, and it stays fiction, but for me it all comes alive. Only a few members understand the bullfight really really well, and they instantly form a bond."

Mark Finguerra, 37, a screenwriter from Brooklyn, said he became interested in bullfighting while researching a screenplay he was writing about Sidney Franklin, a bullfighter from Brooklyn who warranted a mention in Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon." The movie was never made, but Mr. Finguerra became obsessed. He plans to kill his first bull in Mexico in January.

Mr. Weldon, the teacher, described himself as an accidental bullfighting fan. Before he killed his first bull , Mr. Weldon said, "I'd never killed a mammal."

On a trip to Spain in 1998 he attended an afternoon of bullfights in Madrid and became a fan. King Juan Carlos was in the front row, Mr. Weldon said, and the country's three best matadors were in the ring that day.

"It blew me away," he said. "There is something incredibly powerful about a man trying to stand as still as possible and to dominate and control a wild animal that's trying to kill him, and at the same moment creates incredibly subtle, beautiful, delicate artistic images."

Mr. Weldon went back the next year for four months and attended 40 bullfights. He has since attended another 120.

Ms. Monnig, who became obsessed with bullfighting after attending a toreo as a student visiting Spain, said she had been to 500 to 600 bullfights. Not everyone in her life understands.

"My best friend from Italy thinks it the most grotesque thing she's ever heard of," Ms. Monnig said.

Whatever social stigmas that may arise from being a member of a bullfighting club in New York, they can be much worse for aficionados prácticos, who must practice their moves in the city's public spaces. Practice, Mr. Weldon said, is vital because much of bullfighting is counterintuitive. For example, if a bull passes too close, the instinct is to lean back. But since a bull follows the motion of the cape, leaning back might inadvertently draw the bull into one's body.

Mr. Weldon and Mr. Finguerra practice in front of a mirror at a gym and in city parks, with one man holding a pair of horns and charging at the other. They get their share of strange looks.

"People aren't confrontational," Mr. Finguerra said. "They just say, 'Are you bullfighting?' "

Mr. Finguerra, who sheepishly admitted that neighborhood kids sometimes taunted him with cries of "Olé!" but nonetheless said he was "coming out of the bullfighting closet."

"You do look a little ridiculous," he said.

Mr. Finguerra has been in the ring with smaller bulls at a bullfighting camp, and said that the act of staring down even a small bull made him appreciate the real thing, which he described as terrifying.

"You hold the cape out and he looks right at you," Mr. Finguerra said. "And you think, 'He's not buying it.' "

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