Neil Wilson looks at the recortes, a spectacular form of bullfighting that – perhaps – belongs in the circus rather than the ring
THE young man runs towards the charging bull. The crowd cheers loudly, much louder than normal. The bull looks confused. Expecting to have impaled his foe he now finds he is behind him. The performer has dived over the top of the bull, rolled over and is now back on his feet.
This is a different kind of bull fighting. It is bloodless, more acrobatic than the conventional style and growing in popularity across Spain.
The conventional Spanish bullfight, descended from the Andalucian style, takes three stages.
Firstly, the picador takes to the ring on horseback and attempts to ram a spear into the neck of the bull. This causes the animal to start losing blood and lower its head for the subsequent rounds.
In the second stage, a three-strong team armed with long darts enters the ring. The banderillos each seek to drive their darts into the already gaping wound on the back of the bull’s neck, further weakening the animal for the final act.
Banderillos have often been killed by one of the bull’s horns as they raised their arms to inflict the blow.
It is now time for the final act. The often-romanticised matador takes to the ring and engages the bull in a series of passes. Finally, in what is known as the estocada, the matador elegantly thrusts his sword in between the shoulder blades of the animal, aiming for its heart. More often than not the bull is finished off when the matador thrusts a dagger into its spinal cord.
It is all very bloody.
The main difference between this version and recortes, roughly translated as ‘trimming,’ is the most obvious. The animal lives. No blood is shed and after the fight the bull goes back out to graze and maybe enjoy the company of a few cows.
The participants wear less formal clothes and, in many cases, perform more daring stunts than their armed counterparts. Those taking part often work in teams of two but the fight is not split into definable stages.
This style can be traced to the Basque Country and is often referred to as the Basque-Navarra style. Goya’s depiction of 19th century fighter Juanito Apiñani pole vaulting over a charging bull sums it up quite well.
In the Concurso de Recadores, the performer runs adjacent to the bull while it runs at him. Just before he is impaled on the horns, he arches his back, narrowly avoiding being hit before running off to the side of the ring with the bull in hot pursuit.
Stunts include sitting on a stool or kneeling down until the performer and the bull are literally face-to-face and the performing of mid-air cartwheels as the bull passes underneath the airborne youth.
More daring performers stay glued to the spot, swivelling out of the way at the last moment. In a near suicidal move, one performer is used to distract the bull and keep him in charging a straight line, while another jumps on the bull as a gymnast might a hobbyhorse.
The participants wear numbers and are awarded points for style by panel of judges, with the winner being the one, naturally, who accumulates the most points.
This is dangerous. The performers are locked in contest with a bull that has not been weakened through blood loss and whose horns are not lowered.
Strangely however, the amateur nature of recortes ensures that accidents are few and far between.
With no organisation controlling recortes or training participants, the art is perfected in childhood, against young bulls, spontaneously at festivals.
By the time teenagers come to face the larger bulls their reactions are sharp.
Accusation and defence
The most widely known Corrida Vascolandesa takes place during the infamous San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona.
Although many in the Basque Country, Navarra, and indeed, Catalunya, try to distance themselves from ‘the bulls,’ seeing it as a Spanish pastime, there is a surprising history of bullfighting in the Basque Country.
Bilbao even has its own museum dedicated to the art.
Despite this, recortes almost died a death until it was rescued by a public becoming less disposed to the gore of mainstream bullfighting and a youthful attraction to danger. There certainly is not a lot of money in it and the young stars of recortes have yet to become national celebrities on the scale of the popular matadors.
Animal rights activists, in Spain and across Europe, are still not impressed. The League Against Cruel Sports has recently taken up the cause of the bull and sees little difference between standard bullfighting and recortes, saying: “While this is considerably less bloodthirsty, were we are concerned this is still a sport that causes considerable stress and injury to the bull. Therefore we are opposed to it.”
Research suggests that a majority of Spaniards may share their view.
A recent Gallup study revealed that only a quarter of 25-34 year olds had any interest in the corrida.
Yet the crowds watching recortes, particularly in central Spain, are young.
One person who thinks this style means a new start for bullfighting is Sergio Brea Sanchez, from Arganda del Rey near Madrid. A long-standing affectionado, he and his brother Enrique now run an online store dedicated to the art.
Sergio describes the pull of recortes as one of “risk and emotion.”
“The risk part is obvious. People get in the ring to risk their lives for little or no financial reward.
“It is an ancestral tradition, some towns have been doing this for over 500 years,” he says. “When people ‘trim the bull,’ they know they are performing the same dangerous acts their ancestors did many years ago. In this sense it is emotional.”
Shrugging off accusations of animal cruelty, Sergio says: “The bull is given a lot of respect and everybody takes good care of him.
“The popular festejos are growing and, more importantly, they are adapting to the modern world, meaning they will be around for a very long time to come.”