Dances with bulls

In horror and fascination, Anson Cameron watches a spectacle regarded variously as sport, art and slaughter.

The Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza is an arena monumental and ancient enough to amplify the drama it contains. A baroque facade of white adobe walls cut with ochre Moorish arches, surrounded by a spiked iron fence, its tiled roof is supported by marble columns and at its peaks porcelain amphoras are lit by the sun.

Above the main gate is a balustraded balcony from which a senorita might flutter her dark lashes at a torero. Inside, the brick seats angle gently down to an arena of raked yellow sand.

On the shaded side of the arena sit beautiful ghosts of the old world, the Seville nobility. Senoritas dressed in thin-waisted finery like extras from Carmen flutter fans before their faces and gossip with one another. It is the day's most glorious sight and I long to be among them.

In Spain, bullfighting is either admired as an art or loathed as ritual slaughter. The locals in the good seats are its admirers. Over here in the blazing sun, we are just ghouls on holiday. Dressed in the new-world rig of T-shirts and shorts and baseball caps and thongs, I feel as if we are insulting our hosts. But if our barbarism allows them to feel good about themselves, I'm pleased to have played my part.

The arrival of the cast is announced by a trumpet fanfare and a band plays a paso doble. I watched it six times. It always goes like this.

The bull comes out throwing its head around, searching for enemies, and is taunted into charging by men afoot who skedaddle down the slope from the centre of the arena to its edge where they duck behind cover as the bull is forced to halt.

At first the bull charges at the smallest provocation but as it begins to tire the taunters must amplify their insults. They clap and shout at it and it responds as slavishly as a kelpie at sheep trials, choreographed into charging back and forth.

The bull is soon blowing hard, turning to face each fresh enemy, like a caribou harried by wolves, the anger tempered by exhaustion into a white-eyed horror. Then, amid fanfare, the picadors appear and lance it from horseback while the bull spends itself trying to disembowel the horses through armour. By now, because of its wounds and exhaustion, its head is held low.

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More trumpet fanfare and the band plays another paso doble, then the matador enters with the high strut and buttocks of a cheerleader.

I'm reminded some of these champions have been as young as 14. I cannot name any other sport or art, apart from gymnastics, where greatness is achieved so young. A matador is balanced, short of step like a boxer or ballerina. But he is best and bravest when he stands still. And he can do this because the bull does not count him among its enemies. The bull is mesmerised by the cape and hasn't the mental capacity to think its way behind the cape to the puppeteer. All its pain, fear and exhaustion is caused by the shimmering mystery at its nose.

In the 1700s, when the Spanish discovered this, they knew they had the constituent parts of a foolproof drama. A hero appears in mortal danger from a brute, yet is magically able to confound him and overcome his more powerful adversary.

What takes place is a slow, ritualised assault that ends when the matador takes up a sword and stabs the bull between the shoulders down through the heart. This is called la estocada.

But likely as not he misses the aorta and the bull crumples to its knees where it tries to hold up its head, panting, tongue lolling, and is dispatched with a knife to the vertebrae. Two snappily caparisoned mules then drag the bull away.

The same act is repeated five more times. The bull is called like a dog, mocked by the cape, stabbed. It always appears to be the same bull because they are bred from an evolutionary cookie-cutter, entirely predictable fighters.

But the audience is expected to hurrah the last bull as fervently as it did the first. It is a problem bullfighting must overcome if it is to keep alive its pretence of drama.

I had come here imagining I might be thrilled. Or appalled. But it is essentially as boring as watching cars race and we are all waiting for a crash. Here in the cheap seats we are waiting for a matador to be thrown high and pummeled by the brute he has humiliated.

We are barracking for the underdog in black. We don't want the matador to be harmed but the day needs it, otherwise we have been duped into watching pixies taunt tortoises.

In the bars and restaurants surrounding the Plaza De Toros the sign of the bull is everywhere. Each is hung with the heads of many toros and posters and photographs of the famous matadors who defeated them. You would not do well to criticise la corrida here.

The people are not all advocates of the great art but most will defend it as they would defend a drunken uncle threatened by strangers.

He might be loud, aggressive, embarrassing and a long-time scandal but he is family.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Thai Airways has a fare for $1600 to Madrid, with an aircraft change in Bangkok. Korean Airlines charges $1340 flying non-stop to Seoul (overnight at airline's expense) and then non-stop to Madrid. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney excluding tax, which varies with itinerary, airline, stops and time of payment.) Iberia has a one-way fare of EUR118 ($231) from Madrid to Seville.

Bullfights

The Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza is on Paseo de Colon in the centre of Seville on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Bullfights begin in April, when they are held almost daily, and become less frequent until they stop during the heat in late June. There are more bullfights in September and October.

Seats are divided into sombra, meaning shade - the best option; sol, meaning sun, where you will sweat while staring into the sun; or sol y sombra (sun and shade - you get a bit of both as the sun moves) and this is a happy medium. Prices vary from $5 to $140 depending on your seat's position, the fame of the bullfighters and the size of the bulls. Many bullfights sell out in advance. See www.spanish-fiestas.com.

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