I cannot remember two corridas in Madrid ever causing so much controversy and argument amongst the afición as the two return performances of José Tomás in Las Ventas on 5th and 15th June 2008. And their impact spread far beyond peñas and the specialist magazines. The major TV stations gave lengthy coverage to the corridas in their prime-time evening news programmes. Toreo became – for once – an item of front page importance for the nation’s national dailies too. All of them reproduced large, colour photos and quite sensational summaries of the José Tomás performances on their front pages on 6th and 16th June. El País considered only Hilary Clinton’s defeat by Barrack Obama as more significant than the four ears cut by José Tomás from two bulls of Victoriano del Río on 5th June.
The award of the seven ears and the gushing praise of the TV and press annoyed many critics. The tone of blogs over the next few days became more and more heated, and at one, quite elegant, “taurine cocktail” I attended on 19th June – a few days after José Tomás’s extraordinary second performance – two dissenting aficionados actually reached blows. And much of the press coverage was indeed quite over the top: “José Tomás rises to Heaven” said Antonio Lorca in El País on 6th June; “José Tomás is toreo” said Zabala de la Serna in ABC, and José Antonio Arévalo proclaimed the “Resurrection of Toreo” in 6Toros6. Other critics were equally extreme, but in the other direction. They questioned José Tomás’s style, reminding us – usually with quite boring pedantry – of the frequent enganchones, dismissing his valour as unbalanced ritual suicide, and looking for every possible defect in the two afternoons, particularly the number of cogidas, his unorthodox killing, and the generosity of the public and the president. Many have been quick to conclude that José Tomás – in Madrid, at least – is little more than a “tremendista”, nearer in style to the Chicuelo II of the 1950s, or the El Cordobés of the 1960s, than to the real gods of toreo such as Joselito, Belmonte, Manolete or Ordóñez. Politics too has coloured some of the argument. José Tomás is known to hold republican views, and his omission to dedicate any of his four bulls to either the King of Spain or to the Infanta Elena upset many conservative aficionados.
The omission of the royal brindis upset me far less than a number of other aspects of José Tomás’s behaviour. He was, for example, quite dismissive of his colleagues on both days. He quickly accepted the crowd’s invitation for him to take a bow in the tercios after the paseíllo on both days, but showed no interest at all in inviting his colleagues (Conde and Luque on the 5th, and Fundi and Bautista on the 15th) to join him, which, as we know, is a normal courtesy on these occasions, and which was such a contrast to the beautiful way El Cid persuaded his reluctant and shy colleagues, Perera and Talavante, to salute on 6th June, the day of the Núñez del Cuvillos. The official Las Ventas photographer later told me that José Tomás had refused to stand near to any of his colleagues in the puerta de cuadrillas, making a joint photo quite impossible. And Tomás curiously failed to take his hat off during the two confirmation ceremonies on 5th June. This was not just unsightly, it was seen as a bad breach of protocol and an absence of respect towards a younger colleague at a very special moment in his career. And, by my standards, Tomás reacted very, very slowly in two of the quites he made, once to a banderillero and once to El Fundi himself.
Tomás’s lack of concern in quites and his absence of camaraderie contrasted starkly with that of El Fundi, for example. Fundi’s magnificent quite to save José Tomás after he was tossed to the ground and left at the mercy of his first Puerto de San Lorenzo – for a very, very long time – must rate as one of the finest quites in recent years. Fundi sprinted from the burladero of 8 right over to the tercio near to the chiqueros – about 50 metres – outpacing all the other toreros who had rushed out to help too, and fabulously distracted the toro, unquestionably saving Tomás from greater injury. No one could possibly have reached Tomás any earlier. And did Tomás thank Fundi? No, not a handshake, not a gesture, not an acknowledgement. Tomás displayed a very, very sad absence of “compañerismo” on 5th and 15th June and I hope, for his own sake, it does not rebound on him in the future.
But, after all is said, I confess that the two afternoons at Las Ventas were, for me, fabulously memorable. There’s a lovely short article, called “Es imposible”, written by Alfonso Santiago in 6Toros6 nº 730, that exactly matches my reaction, indeed my current feelings, about the feria and the two Tomás afternoons. Try as he may, he wrote, to concentrate and analyse the many great moments of the recent feria (and, despite its length and boredom, there were many), he just could not get the Tomás afternoons out of his mind. All the other moments fade into the background. And I have to follow suit: I have great difficulty in getting these two performances out of my mind too. Every day I wake up thinking of them. And not just because he cut 7 ears in two consecutive appearances in the number one bullring of Spain. More, for me, because he really did show what can be achieved in a bullring by a committed, brave and supremely artistic torero, who may arrogantly believe he is the best, but who delivered everything within his power to the paying – and long-suffering – public of Madrid, with art, honesty and courage.
Let’s look at what happened. On 5th June, the first afternoon, he drew two of the finest, and most obedient toros of the afternooon: ‘Dakar’ (4 years and 2 months old, and 525 kilos) and ‘Comunero’ (4 years and 10 months old, and 536 kilos), both from the local ranches of Victoriano del Río. Tomás took time to settle in to the rythmn of ‘Dakar’. The temple of his opening verónicas was flawed, ditto the chicuelinas after the first vara, ditto the first tanda of derechazos at the beginning of his faena. But he had adjusted nicely to the charge of ‘Dakar’ by the second tanda, and in this and the third tanda he elicited the first great explosive “Olé”s of the afternoon. Las Ventas simply roared.
Then, switching to the left, he gave us two great, great tandas of naturales. And why were these tandas so great, why did they connect so directly with the audience, why did they wrench those deep roars of “Olé” from the 23,000 people present? Because, in my view, he simply followed the basic tenets of great, pure, late-20th-century toreo. Perfectly positioned – almost crossed – for the cite of the first charge. The muleta advanced cleanly, with confidence, and without pico. One – maximum two – gentle toques to provoke a charge. Catching the horns with the muleta at the beginning of the pass – not the middle, let alone the end. Keeping the muleta low. Drawing the bull way past, with temple and around his body, closely – extraordinarily closely – with length and depth. Low, and with confidence, clarity and precision. Closing his muletazos with a remate at the back (“rematando atrás”), rather than in line or outwardly. Linking one muletazo to another without losing steps, usually just one single step with the exit leg, swivelling on an almost motionless entry leg. Long tandas, with multiple remates – not just a pase de pecho, but inspired, baroque cocktails of trincherillas, pases de pecho, and pases de desprecio. So many remates, in fact, that, at moments, you felt he didn’t even want a tanda ever to end!
His faena to ‘Comunero’ was even greater, one of the most beautiful faenas I have ever seen performed in Las Ventas. ‘Comunero’ himself, of course, made a crucial contribution. Victoriano del Río must be very, very proud. Caped with economy by Miguel Cubero and piced magnificently by Francisco de Borja – lightly and high – ‘Comunero’ charged like a dream in the faena, moving with a beautifully regular, determined canter/gallop. (The ganadero Juan José Rueda, my near-neighbour in the tendido that day, thought that ‘Comunero’ was a “toro de indulto”, and I am sure he was right). Tomás rose fully to the occasion. As you can see on the Las.Ventas.com video-resumée (which I recommend to anyone not present that day), he began the faena with four tight estatuarios. The first is enganchado, but not serious enough to force him off to move, and the next three were just superb, as was the cambio at the end. What, of course, the video fails to convey is the atmosphere, the tension and sense of danger that pervaded the tendidos at this moment. Both my neighbours in 8 independently grabbed my left and right arm, filled with fear. We all laughed with embarrassment, and it was amusing to talk about it later, but it seemed – and was – serious at the time.
Then Tomás moved ‘Comunero’ to the medios. Surely, people said, he should stick to the tercios, where the wind was less fierce? No, he went straight for the medios – as if to say: this bull, this bullring and this occasion deserve the medios, nothing less – and gave two tandas of derechazos, and then naturales, that just defy description. Despite a muleta forced almost horizontal by the wind, he managed to draw ‘Comunero’ into muletazos that were as polished and fine as anything he had done with ‘Dakar’. As Zabala de la Serna said in ABC, Tomás seemed to defy and overcome the wind, not just work within limitations imposed. How he achieved such temple under such conditions will remain, for me, a mystery. I counted eight naturales in his first series with the left – and the whole of Las Ventas just exploded with applause. With all due respect to other masters of the natural such as El Cid and Miguel Ángel Perera, there can be no other matador able to interpret the natural with such meaning and depth as Tomás did that day. The closing naturales de frente were equally beautiful: deeper and more controlled than any I can remember since Manolo Vázquez in the 1960s.
These two faenas earned Tomás four ears. This generosity was criticised, with some justification. We all know that the regulations ask a president to judge an estocada before agreeing to a second ear, and the two estocadas to ‘Dakar’ and ‘Comunero’ were undeniably odd. In the first, Tomás was caught between the horns (encunado) and thrown. Tomás’s second kill, to ‘Comunero’, was a weird mixture of something that started as a volapié, moved into a recibiendo and ended up al encuentro. It was an effective estocada entera, but the timing was ragged. Perhaps the glorious quality of the faena to ‘Comunero’ allowed us – as it did President Muñoz Infante – to overlook the weaknesses of the estocada and the two ears were justified (just!). But with hindsight, most aficionados seem to agree that the award of the second ear from the first bull, ‘Dakar’, was excessive by any standards.
The second afternoon of José Tomás on 15th June was a very different kind of affair. He firstly drew ‘Cartuchero I’, an evil atanasio from Puerto de San Lorenzo (5 years old and 525 kilos), then ‘Picoto’ (4 years and 1 month old, and 565 kilos), which was sent back for weakness, and which was substituted by ‘Caribello’, a tall, ugly and unpredictable specimen (4 years and 6 months old, and 585 kilos) from Santiago Domecq’s ranch of Toros de El Torero.
It was an afternoon of drama and heroism. It aroused even more controversy than the first. It polarised many of the various critics and other self-appointed experts into one of the two camps: the “antis” criticizing Tomás’s “excessive” daring, his seemingly near-suicidal approach to those two most difficult bulls, the many enganchones, and the ragged, unorthodox kills. This is not what toreo is all about, they are saying, reminding us that Pedro Romero killed over 2,000 bulls without ever getting scratched, and that Marcial Lalanda always said that, “good toreros don’t get gored”. And, I suppose, these critics have a point. The other camp reflect the reaction of the vast majority of Las Ventas that day, a very sincere reaction to the professional integrity of José Tomás in the face of difficulty, and to his great bravery in the face of danger.
‘Cartuchero I’ was an evil, manso. atanasio, cold and abanto at first, and then, after varas, taking up a strong querencia near the chiqueros. Any audience would have forgiven José Tomás for choosing the kind of path followed by most (but, to be fair, not by all!) figuras: cut short the faena, kill quickly, and hope for better luck on the second. But José Tomás chose to do the exact reverse. With persistence, he ventured into the querencia of ‘Cartuchero I’ and worked hard and stubbornly, very near to the barrera of 3, to get some muletazos from the animal. Each muletazo was an effort. Each one that worked was a triumph. Naturally, those in the direction of the querencia were smoother than those towards the medios. These were full of danger. The charges of ‘Caruchero I’ were fickle, evil and unpredictable. On one occasion, a horn missed Tomás’s neck by inches. He was then caught badly, forced into the sand for an eternity, bruised and cut in the face. (This led to El Fundi’s fabulous quite, which I have described.) But Tomás stood up, recovered his poise, persisted, and, eventually, after many minutes of sheer hard work, he claimed “victory”, by pulling off some fine, clean derechazos. They weren’t the greatest we have seen, but their merit was enormous in the context of this bull. He killed with a pinchazo and an estocada and was given the ear.
José Tomás’s work with ‘Caribello’, the replacement fifth, was simply heroic. It too was a difficult animal, with a treacherous left horn and a violent, jagged rhythm in its charges. Once again, José Tomás rose to the occasion. He gave us four series of pases, always well crossed, citing from a distance and somehow managing to perform fine, but frightening, derechazos. Not wanting to finish without any work on the left, he worked his way through a series of magnificent, deep naturales de frente. But at the remate, he was caught, tossed and gored three times in quick succession: once in the thigh, once in the knee and once in the lower leg.
Bleeding and in pain, José Tomás stayed to finish the job. Rather than go to the infirmary – as the crowd were pleading – he chose to stay, and calmly delivered some delicious derechazos de frente, without losing any ground and revolving on the same spot. He took his time with a further series of manoletinas, before killing ‘Caribello’ with a ragged, but effective, estocada.
Las Ventas then exploded. There were more white handkerchiefs than faces in the tendidos. Two ears were cut. And the whole plaza then stood up in respect at this moment, cheering and shouting, “Torero! Torero!” as Tomás hobbled across the broad ruedo of Las Ventas, head down, weakly trying to acknowledge the deafening applause, with three cornadas in his right leg, all the way from the burladero of 8 to the infirmary, clutching the two ears of ‘Caribello’, followed by his worried, nervous cuadrilla. No, it was not toreo, perhaps, as I had seen before, but I confess I was in tears at this moment, as were many others around me in the tendido. What great, great moments occur sometimes in a bullring, I thought. What a glorious spectacle is the fiesta de los toros. José Tomás showed a degree of integrity that day, a level of sheer respect for the many thousands of people who had bought their tickets – often at vastly inflated prices. He gave us his all that day. You may think it was not normal toreo, but it was undeniably impressive.
Looking back on those days, I have difficulty in drawing long-term conclusions. Without doubt, José Tomás justified – at least in the eyes of the empresarios – the enormous fee he demanded (he is believed to have earned 360,000 euros for each of his two Madrid performances). The losers will be Ponce, Juli and Castella, and certain others, as their fee levels slip in the face of the money that empresarios must now find if they want José Tomás in their ferias. An obvious winner is Victoriano del Río, whose stock is moving from strength to strength. The impact of the two Madrid performances may, I suppose, fade with the passage of time, and the usual group of figuras will recover any lost ground, at least in the provinces. Tomás himself will find it hard to maintain the levels of beauty and drama that he displayed in Madrid on 5th and 15th June. I suppose the temporada will return to equilibrium as the summer progresses.
But the two Madrid performances were indeed historical. They weren’t perfect. There were lapses in terms of technique, protocol and particularly the absence of camaraderie that I have mentioned. However, very, very few toreros can ever have produced so much great work in such a short time-span, in Madrid, with so much bravery, with so much integrity and with so much sheer honesty and respect for the paying public. I left the plaza on a cloud on both afternoons and – despite all the defects – I feel privileged to have witnessed such bravery, such art and such honesty, along with 23,000 other fortunate spectators on each of those two days.