Valor and Emoción

Brian Harding


Note: As soon as we start talking about toreo using Spanish words with no acceptable English translation, we find ourselves tripping up on what is the generally understood meaning of those words, and rather than hedge what follows with a tedious serious of parenthesis-loaded explanations, I have chosen to blunder in with my personal understanding of certain terms in what follows, in order to be able to consider in a stream of consciousness what may, or may not, be true about the inter-relationship of some aspects of the corrida. I crave the indulgence of those who automatically reach for their taurine dictionaries to question the accuracy of my use of those terms, and ask them to pause, and wait until the end before they explode in an outburst of apoplectic indignation…


I was talking to a professional observer of La Fiesta, whose opinions I respect, about a mid-range torero who I happen to quite like, and he said that my man would never become a figura, because he lacked “valor”. Now, in my book, anyone who stands within a few feet of a toro bravo has valor, because toros scare the wits out of me, but his remark set me thinking. My thoughts combined with what Robert Elms wrote about “emoción” in a recent issue of La Divisa (No. 182). It didn’t take me long to conclude that there can’t be emoción without valor, because if the torero is making perfect passes mechanically, without communicating any sense of the risk involved, then it won’t be very exciting, will it?


We have all seen false emoción created by a torero cheating by moving in close once the horns have passed; or by giving half-passes, so the toro never gets close, or else gets pushed away with an outward flick of the muleta. We are in the same territory here as the torero who doesn’t stand in front of the horns, but to one side, ‘fuera de cacho’ as the pundits in Madrid’s Tendido 7 like to call it. Some very respectable aficionados – many of them members of this Club – refuse to recognise the existence of this particular technique, which, along with use of the pico at the start of a faena, is often a perfectly legitimate way to get a toro moving, charging at the cloth, and lowering its head until it becomes completely obsessed or fixed in this target, and its compulsive urge to annihilate it.


But this is all just technical, and valor can only find expression when the torero goes the extra mile, stretches the boundaries of good sense, and puts his body at risk from the half-tonne of wild beast which is trying to destroy him – or her!


There are several ways of understanding emoción: in the case of the spectator, it can best be rendered as “excitement”, and this can be based on observing true risk, or by its close cousin: slight-of-hand. But emoción also describes what the torero experiences, and this can be described as doing what he does with “feeling”. An orchestra conductor can ask his musicians to repeat a piece “once more with feeling”, but there are some toreros - just like performers in other fields - who are incapable of doing what they do with feeling; others achieve it only rarely, when their emotions are aroused. With the pressures of working within the Fiesta the way it is currently organised, it is fair to say that no one can do it all the time. But a rare few toreros can mostly only work from the heart, and achieve high levels of ‘sentimiento’: some have it, and some don’t. Toreros like César Jíménez have enormous innate, natural talent, but early in their careers, they attract the hard-to-shake-off description of ‘frío’ (cold); in the case of Jiménez, he tried at first to compensate by spending a lot of time on his knees, which worked okay in the provinces, but not in the plazas where it mattered. He is still working hard to discover a natural, more feeling style in himself, so far with only limited success, but it must be admitted that he has great style. A critic writing recently about Cayetano’s performance in Málaga, and searching for the highest compliment he could find, concluded that “Cayetano siente el toreo” – genuine feeling again. José Tomás has said that when he goes to the plaza, he leaves his body in the hotel, and torears with his soul.


And we mustn’t forget the other element in this, what toreros call the ‘material’ – the toro bravo. If the toro doesn’t charge, doesn’t display that unique quality known as ‘nobleza’, which can be described as the ability to keep on charging and never back down, then the best intentions of the most gifted, sensitive, feeling torero come to nought. But nobleza on its own is not enough: strength and aggression are also prerequisites; ‘noble y tonto’ is sometimes said of cattle (especially domecqs) when they fail to transmit a sense of danger. There are several words used to describe this quality of threat, ‘casta’ and “

‘bravura’ being the most popular for inherent aggression, and ‘trapío’ for the physical aspect of a powerful, well-armed toro, When a toro bravo displays nobleza, and the torero shows sentimiento, we have ‘transmisión’; when an aficionado sees that, he or she feels the raw emoción, and responds with a deep, heartfelt “Olé!”, and everyone involved feels that it has all been worthwhile – torero, ganadero, and spectator are all united in the shared emoción of the moment.


But none of this would have been possible without the initial valor of the torero, down there on the sand, facing the encastado toro bravo.