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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - The In­de­pen­dent

skin-tight so no sag risked catch­ing a pass­ing horn. To do this, Padilla had to be phys­i­cally lifted off the ground — sweat patches spread across his dresser’s shirt as he made his ef­forts.

For bull­fight­ing afi­ciona­dos, Padilla is like a rock star. A crowd waited for him in the ho­tel lobby and his ret­inue had to form a pha­lanx around him for pro­tec­tion as he was mobbed by fans. A small van then car­ried us to the ring. Crowds lined the streets, grow­ing in size and sound as we drew closer. All the way Padilla seemed barely to no­tice, fid­dling in­stead with icons that hung as amulets from his wrist.

When we were fi­nally de­posited on the street out­side the arena’s main en­trance, the pres­sure of the crowd was so great that it phys­i­cally lifted us up and pushed us for­ward while the lo­cal Span­ish po­lice, their ba­tons out, des­per­ately sought to main­tain con­trol. It was a heady ex­pe­ri­ence — part ex­hil­a­rat­ing, part ter­ri­fy­ing — but one that made clear the ado­ra­tion mata­dors can still elicit and gave the lie to the claim they are in ut­ter de­cline.

Span­ish cul­ture fas­ci­nates me, with its ex­te­rior of sun­shine and sies­tas mask­ing a dark and vi­o­lent soul. I will never for­get, years ago, first see­ing the can­vas of Jose de Rib­era’s Apollo Flay­ing Marsyas. Cru­elty had been il­lu­mi­nated as beauty. The ef­fect was ut­terly Ibe­rian and ut­terly ab­sorb­ing to be­hold. It is why I had been look­ing for­ward to the bull­fight — in­deed had wanted to en­joy it. Yet much of what fol­lowed was a dis­ap­point­ment: the limp fight, the an­gry crowd, the des­per­ate mata­dor. At one stage, one of the bull­fight­ers took four or so at­tempts to get his sword through the right spot in the bull’s back to kill it. I found my­self de­pressed, bored even. Al­most the only emo­tion I could muster was the sense this was an un­fair con­test, and that if the mata­dor were gored, the in­ter­ests of both jus­tice and en­ter­tain­ment would be far bet­ter served. In­stead, this te­dious af­fair was nei­ther cul­ture nor art — and cer­tainly was not sport.

Then, how­ever, it was Padilla’s turn to fight. He en­tered the arena to a fan­fare of trum­pets and, the sun now rapidly fad­ing, the se­quins and re­flec­tive thread of his out­fit glis­tened in the flood­lights that lit the arena. A mata­dor’s uni­form is known as the traje de luces — the suit of lights. See­ing him, I un­der­stood why. Padilla’s pink cos­tume shone bright against the yel­low sand, fo­cus­ing 12,500 eyes on him. A rev­er­en­tial hush de­scended un­til the sta­dium band struck up a paso doble. Sud­denly, there was a new at­mos­phere: one of ex­pec­ta­tion.

It was clear to even my un­trained eye that in his first fight, Padilla ex­hib­ited a skill not wit­nessed in the other con­tests. For a start he en­sured this bull fought. It charged at a pace that re­duced it al­most to a blur; then fol­lowed Padilla’s cape as the mata­dor stood ram­rod­straight and used its mov­ing lure to di­rect 540kg of mus­cle and bone.

At one point he led the bull in a se­ries of turns, the an­i­mal’s horns al­ways pass­ing barely 30cm from his frame. Again and again it thun­dered past him un­til — be­wil­dered — it was left stand­ing silently in front of him, im­mo­bile with con­fu­sion. Padilla turned his back on its horns to stand, hand on hip and left foot for­ward, to salute the crowd. That was greeted by a bar­rage of Oles.

This, I said to Car­los, was fi­nally a bull­fight. He nod­ded agree­ment. ‘‘ Ev­ery move, ev­ery ges­ture, has its own mean­ing,’’ he said. ‘‘ What you are see­ing has been de­vel­oped over cen­turies.’’ When the end came it was quick and clean. One mo­ment Padilla was in front of the bull, poised on tip­toe. Then he sprang, the blade went in, and the an­i­mal fell in a mo­ment. The arena be­came a sea of white hand­ker­chiefs be­ing waved in the tra­di­tional ges­ture of ap­pre­ci­a­tion. The sound of the paso doble again rang around the stalls as Padilla con­ducted his lap of hon­our.

That night, in the back al­leys and big av­enues of Seville, a party was held. For one night, at least, it seemed as if the coun­try’s woes were for­got­ten. The talk was of bull­fights and mata­dors, and what had been good and bad in the arena. The mata­dor was once again cen­tre stage, ac­cepted and adored.

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