Morante de la Puebla: My Morantismo, His Tauromaquia

John Gordon

 

INTRODUCTION

To go to the root of my morantismo is to assess the development of my very own afición to los toros. Growing up in Gibraltar, I have watched corridas on the television since I was two or three and the highlight of my annual trip to Ronda was the obligatory trip to the bullring and its museum. However, the true blossoming of my afición began when I went to my first live corrida in 2000. Morante was on the bill, and his toreo impacted me greatly. As a result, I keenly followed his corridas that year, and was impressed by a faena of his in San Sebastián, and my complete conversion to morantismo came in a festival in La Algaba the day Curro Romero retired. I noticed that this was a different toreo, that his work was impregnated with a personal touch that was absent from other contemporary figuras. However, my conversion to this cause was not to be as sweet as I would have hoped. The next couple of seasons were among the poorest in Morante’s career, and it was not until the 2003 temporada that I was able to enjoy Morante’s toreo live in the ring again. I shall never forget his three corridas that summer in the Campo de Gibraltar; his faenas in Algeciras, La Linea, and San Roque (where he cut the tail of a sobrero he had to buy after receiving two monumental broncas that afternoon) were simply sublime examples of his tauromaquia. More recently, I have been able to enjoy Morante’s great faenas in El Puerto de Santa María, especially the excellent lidia he gave his second bull on 24th July 2006 - four perfect chicuelinas, three artistic pairs of banderillas, and an inspired faena de muleta.

           

 Before moving on to my detailed analysis of his tauromaquia, I shall, for the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with his career, attempt to distil Morante’s 10 years as a full matador de toros. His first three seasons were a steady and spectacular crescendo; he took the alternative in 1997 and capped this season with an inclusion in Ronda’s goyesca. Among the highlights of 1998 and 1999 were his great afternoons in Seville (several orejas and one Puerta del Príncipe), El Puerto, Dax and Palencia . The seasons from 2000-2 were more inconsistent, and this dip may be traceable back to a couple of serious injuries. First of all, Morante suffered two fractured vertebrae after being tossed in San Martín de Valdeiglesias, and, barely six months later, came a serious goring in Seville after he had cut two ears in his first bull. Fortunately, 2003 signaled a return to his best, and Morante gave us a series of outstanding afternoons in plazas such as Madrid and El Puerto (one of his talismanic rings), culminating in him cutting a tail of the last of the six bulls he faced in Jerez. Just when it seemed Morante was ready for an assault on the pinnacle of toreo, he stunned the bullfighting fraternity by retiring in April 2004. He returned in 2005 and over the next two seasons offered us similar results to his stellar 2003 campaign, but, once again after creating some important faenas in Madrid, Sevilla, Jerez and Granada, he retired in June 2007, just three weeks shy of the 10th anniversary of his alternativa. The picture emerges of an inconsistent, but genial, torero, whose finest seasons are marked by the number of great faenas he performs, not the amount of ears or triumphs he has tallied up. Now let us go through Morante’s style, analysing the passes that are typical to his tauromaquia, and help show exactly why he is such a special matador.

 

CAPOTE

Morante will go down in history as one of the great interpreters of the verónica. If we imagine the chain in the evolution of the verónica (the “hilo del toreo” as Pepe Alameda calls it), it would read thus: Belmonte, Curro Puya, Ordóñez, Paula and Morante. However, Morante’s verónica is not strictly an evolution from all that has preceded him. While he composes his figure in a modern style, Morante’s hands are placed further up than most of his contemporaries. In this way, his verónica is a hark back to the days of Juan Belmonte, before the toreros of the 1920’s and 30’s, with Curro Puya at the helm, began their quest to try and torear with lower hands. Therefore, we could say that Morante’s verónica is a fusion of the old and the new. This, in turn, is one of the main attractions of Morante’s toreo - he seems to pick the best elements of previous artistic virtuosos and presents them in a 21st century context.

 

Let us now move on to the elements that make his verónica so emotionally special. In a nutshell, it is aesthetic and rhythmical. I love Morante’s toreo aesthetically; his back is curved beautifully and his chin is sunk into his chest; it is not only the shape he creates with his body, but also the fact that it looks so natural. His pose is not affected at all; he was born to torear like that. However, this shape does not remain static throughout the pass, as he curls the bull round him, so his weight shifts, ever so slightly, to the direction in which the bull is going, Morante toreando with his whole body. Nevertheless, the emotional power of the aesthetics of the verónica would be lost were it not for the suavidad (smoothness) with which he executes the lance - a gentle brush stroke executed with a capote. It matters not whether the bull has come out of the pen running fast, or at a slightly slower trot, Morante will find the right speed at which to move the cape, and the verónicas will come out smoothly and templadas. 

 

However, the purpose of Morante’s verónica is not just to create an emotionally moving pass, there is also a functional facet to it. It seeks both to test the bull’s charge in the early part of the lidia, and, when first meeting the bull, trying to remove its natural querencia by taking it to the centre of the ring. These are two features that should be common to most figuras; nevertheless, the virtue of Morante’s work is that the emotion is not defeated by the technique. Rather, as is often the case in toreo, watching something that is technically correct is satisfying in itself. The perfect example is the capework to the last bull in last  year’s Madrid Beneficencia: eight excellent, aesthetically emotional verónicas, capped off with an equally sensational media verónica that also discovered the bull’s noble charge and took the toro and torero from the barriers to the very centre of the ring; quite simply the best toreo a la verónica that Las Ventas had witnessed this century.

 

 Before moving on to other cape passes, it is necessary to reflect for a moment on Morante’s wonderful media verónicas. I use the plural because we can identify three different styles of medias - the traditional media, media a pies juntos, and, the most spectacular of all, the media belmontina. The traditional media, and the one a pies juntos are very similar, the main difference being that the former involves Morante standing with his feet apart, and the latter, as the name suggests, with his feet together. The media belmontina begins in a similar fashion to the traditional media, but towards the end of the pass, Morante leans forward, and uses a flick of the hips to wrap the cape around his body. The significance of this move is that it is one example of the several belmonte-esque moves in his tauromaquia (there is also a striking similarity between Morante and Belmonte’s molinetes). It is only fitting that the outstanding artist of his generation pays his own taurine tribute to the aesthetic revolutionary of the 1910’s. Granted, many toreros perform the media verónica and are not regarded as paying tribute to Belmonte every time they close a series of verónicas; however, Morante’s aesthetic is so similar to Belmonte’s that his media cannot fail to be seen as paying tribute to “El Pasmo de Triana”.

 

Like most other modern toreros, the other main pass in Morante’s capote repertoire is the chicuelina. He usually employs this pass once the bull has taken a pic (so its charge is somewhat slower), and, unlike the verónica, it serves a purely aesthetic purpose. A further technical difference I can identify is that, while Morante’s pose during the verónica is natural, there is a more conscious pose during the chicuelina in order to give it a baroque element that is lacking from the former lance. Morante performs more of an elaborate dance with his body and arms as he curls the cape round his body and allows the bull to pass very close to him. Another common pass that Morante employs during quites is the delantal; once again, there is not so much a technical, but aesthetic, object to the pass. The principal characteristic to Morante’s delantales is their smoothness; there is barely ever a toque of the cape and the bull is worked round his body in one slow, sweeping move.

 

Although the verónica, chicuelina and delantal form the backbone of Morante’s interpretation of the principal suertes with the cape, the artist’s real creative qualities can only be truly highlighted by the less conventional passes and remates that he has developed. These are, to cite but three, the media chicuelina, his own take on the Mexican tijerilla (as seen in Jerez  2006, when 6Toros6 christened the pass ‘la morantina’), and a particular remate I saw in El Puerto in July 2006 that I can best describe as a revolera cambiada with the reverse of the cape, almost like a one-handed tafallera that was rematado down low and bringing the bull in round the body. I feel it would be redundant and confusing to attempt to describe these passes, but would rather comment on their place within the context of Morante’s tauromaquia. The fact that Morante creates, or, in some cases, resurrects, these less common passes with the cape, serves to cement his place as the great cape artist of his generation (especially since El Juli began to limit his cape repertoire, and given that José Miguel Arroyo ‘Joselito’ belongs to a previous generation). It is refreshing to see him with the cape because just round the corner, in the next quite or remate, he might attempt something unique. This is reminiscent of that great artist Manuel Jiménez ‘Chicuelo’, whose improvisation was such that he would perform quites and recortes in the plaza that he was unable to reproduce later on in his hotel room, and another example of Morante tipping his hat to the past masters of aesthetic, pleasing toreo.

 

BANDERILLAS

Before moving on to the muleta, I think its only right to deal with Morante’s very occasional efforts as a banderillero. He may not go down in history as a complete torero over the three tercios, but he will certainly be remembered, by those lucky enough to witness one of his magical tercios, as someone who could place the banderillas with elegance and grace. The first record of Morante placing banderillas as a full matador is on 19th of March 2000 in Lorca (Murcia), and, since then, I do not think he has placed banderillas on more than 20 bulls.

 

The most common style of pair he places is de poder a poder, and almost exclusively working on the bull’s right side. Morante will stand in the centre of the ring, in an artistic pose, and cite the bull with his voice; man and bull set off at the same time, but Morante’s steps are slow and graceful (in stark contrast to the bull’s more violent gallop); both bodies meet in the centre of the suerte, with Morante placing the banderillas while in between the bull’s horns (not a toro pasado!); and the crowd explodes in ecstasy. A less common pair in his repertoire is the pair al quiebro which he usually places to close the tercio, and I also record that he once placed a par a la calafia.  Anyone wanting to see the archetypal tercio morantista should watch his performance with ‘Hatero’, the last bull of his encerrona in Las Ventas last June.

 

Although blessed with the potential of performing emotionally stirring tercios with the banderillas, Morante will not become one of the star banderilleros of the escalafón. He will merely limit his banderillas to bulls in which he sees the potential to shine, namely, noble bulls with a steady gallop and a sharp reaction to his cites. Regardless, part of the charm of his tercios resides precisely in their unexpectedness and surprise, and Morante’s occasional forays will always be a fresh and welcome alternative to the athletic style of banderilleros currently en vogue. 

 

MULETA

There are two clear facets to Morante’s work with the muleta; he focuses on structuring his faenas around series of linked passes en redondo, but he also tries to evoke the toreo of the “golden age” with Sevillian touches to rematar the series. I know that each torero has certain passes in their repertoire beyond the derechazo and the natural. However, in Morante, the trincherazos, molinetes, kikirikís and various types of recortes are elevated almost to the level of fundamental toreo, to such an extent that, in some of his great faenas, the remates and recortes have been of equal structural importance to the toreo en redondo. Now, to understand Morante’s toreo with the muleta more fully, I will try to analyse and assess a model faena de muleta morantista and the concepts that govern it.

 

Morante generally begins his faenas with ayudados either por alto or por bajo. The type generally depends on the bull’s temperament; if it is noble, the passes are given por alto, but, if it requires dominating, por bajo. The passes por alto are more aesthetically emotional and tend to be longer passes because Morante tries to curl the bull right around his body, but the passes por bajo convey a deeper taurine emotion because they consist of the torero exerting his dominance over the toro.

 

Once this preamble is over, Morante will begin what in our time is known as ‘fundamental toreo’, that is, linking passes en redondo with either the left or right hand. Although this structure is vital to Morante’s style, his concept of toreo goes beyond merely linking the passes together. I would argue that, in his mind at least, it is crucial not only to link the passes, but that each pass in itself must be of a high aesthetic and technical quality. That is, a long pass, where the torero reaches out to the bull with the muleta as he cites, takes control of it just as he comes within reach, and then taking the bull on a 90 degree angle around the body and hips, and all of this underlined by his own personal aesthetic. At the end of the pass, Morante swivels round, pivoting on his front leg, and is in the correct position in order to begin the above sequence once again. However, this is simply the concept at its highest point - the ideal that Morante strives for, but is not always able to achieve. Since, in Morante, the individual pass is of as great an importance as the ligazón (linking), quite often Morante will make the pass so long, and takes the bull so far round the body, that he is not able link the pass by merely pivoting on one leg; rather, he needs to take some steps across the bull in order to be cruzado for the next pass. This has the effect of making the series rather staccato; a couple of linked passes are interrupted by a walk in order to be cruzado, which, in turn, is followed by some more linked passes.

 

A principal cause of this is that Morante is most comfortable citing the bull when he is cruzado. In my reckoning, there are two principle reasons for this, and ultimately these are the two advantages of being cruzado. Firstly, if one cites the bull from the cruzado position, the bull is not charging in a straight line; it charges slightly slower, enabling the pass itself to be slower. Secondly, the cruzado position allows the initial part of the pass to be further away from the body so as then to bring the bull round 90 degrees in  more prolonged manner. However, psychologically, it is hard for Morante (and any other torero for that matter) to get across the bull’s line of charge to cite the pitón contrario from a cruzado position if he is not at ease with the bull. Here comes a more conservative Morante who lacks the confidence of crossing the bull’s line of charge before citing and thus places himself at the hilo of the pitón. The ultimate result is that Morante does not commit himself to the pass he is performing, rather giving the impression that he has “given up” trying to torear the bull properly. Therefore, one can tell that Morante is confident and committed, and is intent on creating a complete faena, if he begins his series en redondo by citing the bull from a cruzado position. Nevertheless, as is implied in the above paragraph, this desire to be cruzado has the draw back of stunting his toreo en redondo; if he does not see the next pass in the series cleanly, he is more likely to stop the ligazón, and get into a crossed position. Although this might help the individual pass, it is detrimental to the ligazón in the faena.  

 

Another key concept in toreo is temple; which is essentially the skill in ensuring that the bull never catches the lure. Enganchones are perhaps the worst feature that a faena can have; if the bull catches the lure, it has reached his objective, while, if it does not, the torero has achieved his objective of guiding the bull with his lure. Morante is able to templar, but he is by no means a virtuoso of temple. This is a real pity because some of his good faenas are not considered great due to the number of enganchones that has stunted their development. If linking passes together has the effect of building a series up to a crescendo, an enganchón right in the middle of it almost puts the torero back to square one in terms of the emotion he might have been able to build up in that series.  However, despite being average at templando, Morante’s overwhelming personality and aesthetic concept has the effect of making the enganchones less significant than they might be in another torero. A pass which has an enganche is obviously of less taurine value than a “clean” one: however, Morante is able to overcome this because his toreo exists on a higher artistic and aesthetic plane.

 

In the previous few paragraphs, I have placed a great deal of emphasis on Morante’s aesthetic concept; it is a key element in his toreo and underpins all of his actions in front of the bull. I feel it is therefore appropriate to define it and explain why it is so special. Physically, the pose that Morante uses in his toreo de muleta is similar to the one for his toreo de capote (as defined above), but modified to adapt to the fact that the muleta is held in one hand. Furthermore, each movement is impregnated with the wonderful combination of grace and elegance that underlines his aesthetic pose. While there are many toreros who are elegant (with Ponce and Finito de Córdoba at the forefront), Morante combines this with a Sevillian, almost Pepe Luis Vázquez-esque, grace that gives his toreo a unique feel. It is difficult to define or explain this intangible aspect of Morante’s toreo; I have called it grace, but one may say I it is art, or the Sevillian way of toreo; whatever it is, Morante’s toreo has this ethereal aspect to it that adds a strong emotional element to his passes and makes his toreo unique.

 

Apart from Morante’s personal aesthetic quality, there is a very distinct feel to his toreo’s accesorio (i.e. not the toreo fundamental en redondo outlined above). If so far in this section, we have dealt with Morante’s technique and concept when he is toreando en redondo, it is now appropriate to deal with the more creative aspects of his toreo, namely the remates and recortes he sprinkles his faenas with. I mentioned earlier that, in Morante, these are raised to the same level as the toreo fundamental. The reasons are three-fold. Firstly, the delicate grace that underlines his aesthetic personality is clearest when he breaks the mould of traditional toreo and carries out his remates - one of his sublime trincherazos is ample proof of this. Secondly, to Morante, toreo is not subject to strict rules where a faena must be composed of linked series of derechazos and naturales, but a free expression of the soul where the muleta is the paintbrush used by the torero to create the pass that he feels is the most appropriate at any given moment. Therefore, Morante is just as likely to finish off a tanda with a molinete invertido combined with a recorte as he is with a pase de pecho; or, if the time is right, decide that what is necessary is a tanda of three or four molinetes belmontinos (aesthetically, Morante’s shape when he is performing molinetes looks a great deal like photos of Belmonte). Finally, I would argue that Morante’s recortes are his tribute to the taurine past. He has resurrected remates and recortes from the early part of the 20th century and incorporates them into his toreo. Therefore, not only are his molinetes quite belmontinos, but his kikirikís are reminiscent of Gallito and his naturales de frente are his particular tribute to the post-war toreo of Manolo Vázquez. 

 

However, the veritable bounty of treats in Morante’s toreo, from heartrending toreo en redondo, to the creative sparks of the recortes, require a suitable bull, and unfortunately this bull does not appear in the ring everyday. Therefore, when Morante does not see any potential in the bull he has drawn, he has no qualms in getting rid of it quickly with a couple of doblones and an estocada.. He is not one to try and extract something out of a bull that clearly has no potential - a great contrast with many current matadors who persist in citing a bull and trying to torear when it is clear that their endeavours will surely end in failure. I have no problem with Morante getting rid of bulls quickly, and, in fact, admire the times that he uses the fact that the bull is no good to showcase his toreo de piernas. Even when Morante is macheteando the bull, his movements in the ring are still graceful and emotional. However, nowadays the public will not tolerate this type of faena, and more often than not Morante will receive a bronca for his efforts when, in reality, he has given the bull the only lidia that it merited.

 

ESTOCADA

Morante is very poor with the sword in his hand, and this is surely the most mediocre side of his toreo. It is only necessary to watch the way he lines up for the kill, his right arm seemingly contorted and in the wrong place. What is worse, he goes “out” away from the bull before he has even reached the jurisdiction of the morrillo. Ultimately, there is a lack of conviction when he goes in for the swordthrust, and, when one does not enter believing that the sword will go in, more often than not, the result will be a pinchazo. Therefore, as a result of his poor swordsmanship, Morante has lost a great deal of his triumphs. Indeed, without going further, he has lost three salidas en hombros in Madrid. Although aficionados will always argue that orejas and triumphs are mere “despojos” (leftovers, and of little importance), a complete torero should always view a good, clean estocada as the proper way to sign off his work. Morante’s poor swordwork should therefore not be ignored by repeating the typical cliché of, “Artistic toreros do not need to kill” - not killing a bull properly and cleanly is like not signing a letter; the work is ultimately incomplete. Therefore any balanced account (as this modestly aims to be) of Morante’s toreo should chastise the torero for his lack of competence and consistency with the volapié.

 

However, all of Morante’s work with the sword is not as lacklustre and vacant of emotion as the previous paragraph may imply, and there is a very important facet to it that is worthy of praise - the times Morante has killed effectively and beautifully recibiendo. This suerte is rarely seen nowadays; in fact, I can only recall having seen Luis Franscisco Esplá, César Rincón and El Fundi doing so recently (there may be more, but these are the ones I have seen with my own eyes). The most famous two estocadas recibiendo he has done were most certainly in Sevilla on the day he was gored seriously by a Victoriano del Río bull, and in Jerez de la Frontera when he killed six bulls alone. I myself witnessed him sign off his excellent faena to a sobrero in San Roque in such a way, and the emotion created by the kill most certainly contributed to the final award of the tail. Although the times when he attempts to kill recibiendo are few and far between, the fact that he attempts it at all is worthy of note. Thus, despite the sword being Morante’s Achilles heel, there are some parts that can be salvaged as genial, and worthy to be compared to the rest of his toreo.

 

MORANTE’S PLACE IN THE HILO DELTOREO

Having analysed Morante’s tauromaquia, it only seems fitting to attempt to place it within the context of history. Nothing in toreo is the product of spontaneous generation; each style of toreo, no matter how revolutionary, has its predecessors, and Morante, who is by no means a revolutionary, is not different. His toreo is part of the artistic tradition, where the aesthetic expression of the pass is given as great an importance as the technical aspects of it. Furthermore, Morante can also be placed in what one may term a sub-group of the artistic tradition, which we may term toreo sevillano (the Seville school), a type of toreo which places creative remates and passes at the forefront of the tauromaquia. Throughout this article, I have made reference that one or other of Morante’s passes serves as a tribute to a figura of  the taurine past, and I feel that, more than being defined as a mere artist, he will be remembered as an artist who attempted to re-create the aesthetics of past figuras. Moreover, given that Morante does not ignore the toreo en redondo, and therefore gives the toreo sevillano a modern feel, he is in some ways consolidating the last century’s worth of aesthetic progress into a toreo that it is up to the technical standard that we have come to expect in modern figuras.

 

So, while in the context of the evolution of toreo he will be seen more as a torero who consolidated what came before him, rather than as a revolutionary (a torero who took what came before, but developed toreo in a new direction, either aesthetically of technically), at what level should he be placed as far as his worth as a torero is concerned? There is little doubt that, even in our current escalafón, which is made up of about 10 top-level toreros who could, in time, be considered great figuras, Morante is one of the leading lights. However, more debatable is where he will be placed once history is entasked with judging him.

 

Such judgement is, of course, highly subjective. To my mind, even as an avid morantista, the cream of the current crop is Enrique Ponce, and the 90’s and 00’s shall be seen as Ponce’s era, just as the 1940’s belong to Manolete, and the Edad de Plata to Marcial Lalanda. However, both Manuel Rodríguez and Marcial had artistic foils in their time who shared the limelight - Pepe Luis Vázquez, and Chicuelo. It is very possible that Morante shall be seen as the artistic foil of our age, especially if he does not aspire to the helm that El Juli and Castella are beginning to make their own. Rather, Morante seems to be content to play the role of the artist, a role that has, unfortunately, led to some eccentricities, manifested in a flamboyant dress sense, parading Paula as his manager last year, and now embarking on his small “tour” with El Pana.

 

 I am writing this at the beginning of 2008, a season where Morante has self-imposed a limit of 25 corridas for himself. I am all for toreros cutting back and opting not to torear banal small-town corridas that contribute to an artificial expansion of the amount of corridas in a season. However, to limit oneself to that small amount shows a complete lack of desire to fully participate in the European season, which is alright if one is Curro Romero in his 50’s – someone who has already cemented his place in history. However, for a top torero in his late 20’s, who still has a great deal to offer, and to prove…! It seems a risky, not to say suicidal, proposition. In order to justify it, he needs some more big performances in Madrid and Sevilla, as well as his customary faenas de duende in the rincón de Cádiz. I, for one, will be waiting with bated breath.