Sunday, 5 June 2016

Rodolfo Rodríguez González El Pana – Critical Appreciation




Sadly, we are all aware of the tragic tale of Rodolfo Rodríguez El Pana. He suffered critical injuries in Ciudad Lerdo (Durango, Mexico) on 1 May 2016 when he was tossed by the bull Pan Francés from the Guanamé ranch. Sadly, the prognosis was always bleak, doctors[i] diagnosed El Pana with quadriplegia and the torero (who was subsequently transferred to a Guadalajara hospital) passed away on 2 June 2016 after suffering numerous cardiac problems.

El Pana has always said he was born in Apizaco on the 2 February 1952, although there are suggestions that he was at least three years older[ii]. He started in La Fiesta’s basement. Pushed towards toreo as a way to escape an underprivileged social context, El Pana forged himself as a torero as part of an amateur trope in the chaotic capeas of the Mexican provinces. His apprenticeship was supplemented through clandestine excursions into the ganaderías in the countryside surrounding Apizaco[iii].  After ten years of struggling through a career that lacked direction, and meandering towards failure, he grasped his chance at an opportunity in La Plaza México by jumping into the ring as an espontáneo during a novillada in1977.

The publicity stunt worked. The, by now fairly senior, novillero gripped the attention of the capital’s afición and he filled the plaza with expectant aficionados during a series of novilladas in 1978. His performances as a novillero culminated in a mano a mano with César Pastor in the capital with a novillada from the Begoña ranch. He obtained an indulto of his third bull after what must have been a dramatic faena[iv]. El Pana had arrived. These promising successes led to an alternativa March 18, 1979 in La México (with Mariano Ramos as padrino), and there was a genuine hope that here was a torero that could break the hegemony imposed by Manolo Martínez and Eloy Cavazos.

Such hopes underestimated the control exerted by those two toreros on Mexican toreo of the period. Therefore, El Pana was side lined. He spent the eighties and nineties toreando sporadically, with seasons of less than twenty corridas during the eighties becoming campaigns of less than five corridas in the nineties and finally radio silence in the early noughties.

Everything changed on January 7 2007 – El Pana was given the opportunity to retire with dignity in La Plaza México. Instead, he resurrected in all his glory. The corrida was broadcast and the whole taurine world was finally able to enjoy (and discover) El Pana. His faena to Rey Mago[v] will be remembered one of toreo’s magical performances.  A new generation discovered El Pana and Mexican toreo found itself in such a dire predicament that it could no longer ignore such a genial torero.

El Pana’s career was defined by the last ten years. In his fifties and sixties, El Pana became the preeminent Mexican torero that his toreo deserved. He also, finally, had the chance to appear in Spain. Although the top European rings, perhaps unfairly, closed their gates to him (nihil novi sub sole for El Pana) he had a number of magical performances in the Spanish and French provinces. All of which took Rodolfo Rodriguez to Ciudad Lerdo on May 1 2016 – this time it would be the final paseíllo of his life. As Rodolfo lay unconscious on the sand, he could no longer muster the spirit of the phoenix that had helped him rise from the ashes of his life’s travails – Pan Francés had broken his back, and with it the soul of a romantic sector of the afición enchanted by this magically bohemian torero.

Romanticism and bohemia had been at the heart of the concept of El Pana as a torero. An irreverent soul, he always possessed a unique talent to connect with his audience. He connected with the crowd in La México in 1978, he did so once again spectacularly in 2007 and continued to do so until the first day of May 2016. Sometimes, aficionados, when we seek to analyse as well as experience the corrida, get bogged down in technical considerations. Some toreros are impossible to analyse this way – the emotion they create is greater than the sum of the parts of their toreo. At its heart, toreo is a performance art: it relies on the performer’s ability to enchant the audience. Populist toreros such as Manuel Díaz El Cordobés, Juan José Padilla and El Fandi base their tauromaquia precisely on this ability to connect with the crowd. El Pana had more torería than these toreros (perhaps, the best comparison might be Luís Francisco Esplá, another torero with great ability to fill the plaza with his presence and his show), but, at its most basic, Rodolfo’s toreo sought to enthral.

Therefore, his paseíllo, performed while smoking a cigar, was part of the show. As was his way of walking to and from the bull, dragging his feet across the sand, determined to show the audience of the importance of the moment to come. He was also prone to trance like episodes, similar, perhaps, to what we might have seen from Victoriano de la Serna in the 1920s. Above all, El Pana would give his audience a show.

Beyond this, El Pana was also a capable torero. He followed the tradition of varied Mexican toreros – Rodolfo’s toreo was varied with the capote and bright with banderillas. With the latter, he had a signature pair: el par a la calafia[vi]. A type of quiebro al violín performed close to the boards (similar to Manuel Escribano’s current popular quiebro) with the difference that the banderillas pass over the shoulder rather than across the chest as would be the case al violin. He was clearly in the line of varied gallismo, that it is, following Gallito’s tradition of dominating a wide variety of suertes, but lacking the dominance over the bull of a complete or dominant gallista.

It would not be a disservice to say that El Pana was never a dominant toreo – the seven toros with whom he heard the three avisos in La México can attest to that. Rather, his muleta work was sweet, gentle and underlined by class and variety. His toreo fundamental was well timed and exceedingly slow, a necessary quality in order to extract the best from the Mexican bull. Rodolfo also had an excellent ability to lower his hand and perform very long and low muletazos, particularly with the right hand. Aside from his toreo fundamental, El Pana’s accessorial toreo was delightful. His trincherazos would be the envy of most artists and he was able to torear por alto like Procuna. In many ways, he was the great consolidator of great Mexican toreo – he brought together all the variety that existed in Mexican toreo before Camino crossed the pond and every Mexican sought to imitate him[vii].

It feels churlish to assess El Pana’s toreo because I will always feel he gave us an incomplete portfolio of work. Compared to other figuras, El Pana has toreado very little. Because of this, what will live on is the folkloric image of El Pana as a bohemian torero and perhaps his toreo will fade in comparison to his legend – this is unfair, because his toreo, at its best, was genuinely beautiful. If only he had been given the contracts that he deserved; his toreo would have come to the fore and we would have enjoyed more faenas like the one to Rey Mago. Perhaps, we might have also enjoyed a generation of young Mexican toreros that followed in his concept, keen to keep the toreo from Mexico’s golden age alive.

The question now is, where do we place El Pana in the wider context of Mexican toreo? His career certainly lacked the longevity and sustained glory of his nemeses Martínez and Cavazos. He also lacks the prominence of the figuras that followed that duo: Curro Rivera, David Silveti, Miguel Armillita Chico or Jorge Gutiérrez. In any appraisals of Mexican toreo, all of these torero appear above El Pana[viii].

I think that each of these characterisations undersells El Pana. Of course, merely by the nature of his career, comparisons are difficult, and it is hard to argue that his historical significance surpasses his peers. However, and this is the crux of the matter, he might have been a better torero than each of them. That might sound far-fetched, but he has been able to compete with Spanish toreros in a way few other Mexican toreros have done over the last sixty years. Domingo Delgado de la Cámara certainly argues this point, adding that El Pana was the final torero in the lineage of the Golden Age of Mexican toreo[ix].

This piece lacks the flamboyant and graceful wordsmithery that was one of El Pana’s traits – however, it is my small toast to a colourful torero whose journey through la fiesta enhanced the varied tapestry of toreo.

A final thought takes me to Hemingway. He would have never seen El Pana, but he wrote about an equally genial torero: Rafael El Gallo. Don Ernesto wrote that it would have been a tragedy for El Gallo to have been killed by a bull[x]; similarly, El Pana was not meant to end this way. El Pana was destined to keep regaling us with his irreverent toreo and, once his career was over, to hold court over taurine tertulias with his wealth of anecdotes and politically incorrect (but extremely perceptive) views on toreo. Sadly, however, El Pana’s final lesson in the ring was a sad reminder that a bull, in its neck muscles and in its horns, carries glory and tragedy in equal measure.   



[i] http://www.mundotoro.com/noticia/el-pana-herido-grave-en-ciudad-lerdo/1282013 mundotoro’s rolling news blog has given daily updates on El Pana’s condition and has imbedded footage from the press conference held by El Pana’s doctors.
[ii] http://www.larazon.es/toros/los-medicos-diagnostican-una-cuadraplegia-el-pana-no-podra-volver-a-caminar-LA12568641#.Ttt1bw9PcM5Jwxu evidence of birth date discrepancies are always tenuous, however, the fact that the suggestion comes from prominent Mexican taurine journalist Juan Antonio de Labra means I felt they were worthy not noting. As an aside El Cossio states his birthday as 22 February 1952 while Abella, like Juan Antonio de Labra puts it a 2 February 1952.
[iii][iii] Taken from Banderillas Negras’ excellent interview with El Pana, completed a couple of months before his injury http://banderillasnegras.blogspot.com/2016/03/el-pana-habla-en-banderillas-negras.html
[iv] Cossio Los Toros vol 18 Espasa 2007
[vi] José Luis Ramón Todas las Suertes Por Sus Maestros Espasa 1998.
[vii] Domingo Delgado de la Cámara Entre Marte y Venus Modus Operandi  2014.
[viii] For the purposes of this exercise I referred to Paco Aguado’s Figuras del Siglo XX and Carlos Abella’s De Manolete a José Tomás. Aguado omits El Pana entirely, while Abella places him after the aforementioned Mexican figuras.  Also see http://altoromexico.com/2010/?acc=noticiad&id=1149

[ix] Delgado de la Cámara, Marte y Venus.
[x] In Death in the Afternoon.

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