Coleman Cooney is a big believer in what he calls “pure sublime,” the moment when conditions align (spontaneously, inexplicably, rarely) to create something extraordinary. Things like catching the perfect wave, or smashing an unrepeatable topspin backhand.
Cooney’s perfect moment, however, involves a large, charging animal. He is an amateur bullfighter, or what the local community would refer to as an aficionado practico. The Southern California native is also, since 1997, the co-founder of the California Academy of Tauromaquia, located in San Diego.
As an American with no background in bullfighting, Cooney seems an odd candidate for a matador mentor. In 1984, after studying history at the University of California in San Diego, he lived in Madrid for six years and became obsessed with the taurine elements of Spanish culture. Running with the bulls in Pamplona was an annual thrill, but his real education came from season’s tickets to Madrid’s Las Ventas—the home of bullfighting in Spain and, arguably, the world. Returning to California, he was determined to prolong the vibe, and for five years he went to work setting up a bullfighting school. Call it a hunch but, to Cooney, it seemed to fit in with the desert landscape. He pictured gangs of kids in neighbourhood parks practicing their toreo(bullfighting) moves. Now, ten years and almost one thousand students later, the Academy of Tauromaquia has become a major American access point for the sport. “There will be a Lance Armstrong of bullfighting one day,” says Cooney, “and we would like to be a part of that.”
Matador, literally translated, means killer. But that translation misses much: how the matador is himself hunted; how he engages in a precarious dance with the bull’s razor-sharp horns, delicately sidestepping his own death by mere inches. Remaining poised and elegant in the face of such obvious danger is as important as the final killing of the bull (brought about by plunging a sword, or estoque, deep between its shoulder blades). In fact, these things are central to the meaning and appeal of bullfighting. But casualties do happen. Dozens of matadors have been killed in the ring: the great Manolete himself, arguably the greatest bullfighter of all time, died this way in 1947 after being gored in his right thigh.
But while waving an elaborate red cape at a pissed-off black bull is, for some, the summit of grace and skill, for others it’s a barbarous display of animal cruelty. In either case, it seems a far cry from the hang-loose attitude that California calls to mind. Cooney, who seems unmoved by the animal cruelty arguments, pays little heed to the flagrant incongruities of setting up such an operation in America’s flower patch: “America is perfect for anything. Anything can work.”
In truth, amateur bullfighting is already woven into the California fabric. Spanish and Portuguese immigrants imported their centuries-old fiesta brava to tiny, and increasingly Iberia-like, valley towns such as Turlock, Modesto, Artesia, Tulare and Escalon. In the sixties, televised toreo was broadcast from Mexico City with English commentary and became a smash hit with the Portuguese-American pockets of the San Joaquin Valley. But Cooney’s bullfighting school has helped move the sport out of its Hispanics-only shadow. He believes the mainstream isn’t too far off.
He may be right. Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) is considering broadcasting bullfighting. And an upcoming, big-budget Hollywood biopic called Manolete—with actor Adrien Brody in the lead—is currently in post-production. The Academy of Tauromaquia is regularly profiled in lifestyle reviews and is featured in several television documentaries. Cooney himself has a screenplay under his belt (loosely about bullfighting, of course), and has been approached many times to take part in television reality shows. The school has even triggered rival academies in Texas and in the California Central Valley.
With the rise in popularity, however, come mis-conceptions. People whose knowledge of bullfighting, for example, begins and ends with Hemingway’s classic Death in the Afternoon. “Those who are already interested come to us with all sorts of wild ideas,” says Cooney, “and we set them straight a bit first and then teach them.”
In Spain, bullfighting has a traditional and spiritual appeal, whereas in California it draws more of a niche audience: well travelled, affluent, cultured. “Ninety-nine percent of the academy’s students,” says Cooney, “have no professional ambitions and simply get involved out of the sheer art, fun and desire to bullfight.” Students start off against a vaquilla, a young cow genetically predisposed to aggressiveness (vaquillas are also used by breeders to produce fighting bulls). It is very unusual for someone to get hurt: Cooney mentions a Wall Street Journal writer who once fell and broke his wrist, but otherwise it’s mostly scratches and bruises.
Training covers the entire gamut of fighting. The first trick is to do a “parallel toreo,” which is executing a pass of the animal without having to change stance. The style is no different from what you might learn in Spain or South America. Technique aside, bullfighting is a great workout—“better than aerobics,” adds Cooney. The muleta (the matador’s small red cape) is surprising heavy and awkward and learning to hold it develops a strong wrist and forearm.
Once the muleta is mastered, students can visit a ganadería (bull-breeding ranch) and step into the ring with an animal. However, since “lethal” bullfights are illegal in the United States, the live-animal component of Cooney’s classes is carried out just across the border in Mexico. Joe Escalante, an academy alumnus and now dedicated amateur practitioner, stresses that students need to have the right amount of training before attempting a kill because “there is nothing uglier than a botched stab.” Escalante has killed seven animals. It’s neither for the faint of heart nor the faint of wallet. A bull to kill will cost you anywhere from $600 to $1,000 us.
The academy offers a number of course packages, but for those who want a real taste of the long, intensive training needed to graduate from novillero (apprentice) to matador, there are five-day trips to Spain for $2,200 us (airfare not included) to experience bullfighting in its purest form. Cooney admits that his academy is not a “massive money-spinner.” Passion for toreo, he says, motivates him more than profit.
Cooney actually earns his living as a screenwriter. To some, he might appear to be living a rather quixotic double life. But it takes vision to justify setting up a bullfighting school in California (“Insolence, that’s what it takes,” he chuckles). Just shy of fifty, Cooney is married and has three boys, all of whom have snapped a muleta in front of a charging animal. He hopes to play less of a role in the school in the coming years. His long-term aim is to become a ganadero with 300 acres and one hundred breeding cows—a rancher, in other words. When asked about his plans for the academy’s tenth anniversary, he stops and thinks for a moment: “Hire someone to do the Spain class while I go to the South of France on holiday. Might kill a bull there.”