“Throw your heart over the top, and your horse will follow,” says a student of champion show jumper Harry deLeyer; recalling some of the most sage advice from her much loved riding teacher. It is the perfect quote to sum up the life and work of deLeyer, whose extraordinary experiences with one very special horse are on show in tonight’s documentary, HARRY & SNOWMAN.
A Dutch immigrant, deLeyer relocated to the United States after witnessing the horrors of World War II and developed a transformative relationship with a broken down, Amish plow horse he rescued off a slaughter truck bound for the glue factory. Costing him the princely sum of eighty dollars, the horse, which he called Snowman for its white coat, was mostly a salvage effort. Despite thinking he was a pretty sweet little guy, Harry soon sold him to a local doctor friend to honour an agreement, and his story could have ended there. However, after Snowman repeatedly jumped the doctor's fences, only to return to Harry's home several miles away, it was determined that the rather special white horse was destined for bigger things.
In less than two years, Harry and his trusty steed Snowman went on to win the triple crown of show jumping, beating the nation’s blue bloods with aplomb. As they became increasingly famous they began to travel the world together, and the documentary offers up the idea that their chance meeting at a Pennsylvania horse auction saved them both and kicked off a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
When we meet him in the film, tough taskmaster deLeyer is pushing 86 and still riding as often as he can. We see archival footage of the pair and Snowman’s talents slowly unfolding: in summer he is a super cute water taxi for a bunch of lucky children; in winter he pulls them on skis. This footage of the much-loved horse is in interesting juxtaposition to scenes featuring deLeyer’s family, including hints that he may not quite have been the model dad. His daughter Harriet doesn’t hesitate when admitting that the horses always took priority over his eight children, as did his own illustrious career. “A lot of times the kids went without so that he could have,” she says.
If this nod to deLeyer’s darkness had been investigated further I think it would have given the film a more compelling vibe, but maybe I’m just looking for controversy when viewing what is a pretty feelgood film. I love that it almost doubles as an animal-rescue advocacy tool, and wish it had first aired during the school holidays as I think a lot of horsey kids would have loved the tale.
A film that doesn’t shy away from depicting the darker side of a famous name is tomorrow night’s documentary, DANCER. Filmmaker Steven Cantor shines his lens on the life and career of troubled-at-times ballet super talent Sergei Polunin, from his prodigal beginnings in the Ukraine to his awe-inspiring performances all over the world.
It is interesting to observe as the film goes on exactly how much the young star was living his mother’s dream, as much as his own. Both his father and grandmother left the Ukraine to work and send money home to support the young boy and his mother as she took him to the best ballet schools available, and their dedication to the task is heartbreaking to watch. Without his family’s support, he would never have had his chance, but it also became their collective downfall. When, after years of struggle, he was eventually accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London (where he was to become the youngest ever principal), he had to leave his family behind due to visa problems. His motivation for becoming a star dancer was to bring the family back together again - but his parents’ inevitable divorce destroys that dream.
Cantor has done a great job of telling Polunin’s story thus far, and the incredible archival footage of him dancing from a very young age is absolutely extraordinary. It underlines again and again what an absolutely freak talent the dancer is, and how hard he has worked since he was a very little boy to be the best. Scenes of him rehearsing with an almost savage intensity as a student in London is wonderfully juxtaposed against private footage of after-hours shenanigans with his mates, demonstrating how easily he could transition into being just another teenage goof.
A willing participant who seems almost relieved to have his tale told in full, Polunin speaks frankly about the physical grind, loneliness, and monotony of his life in ballet and of his struggle to stay motivated after quickly achieving every goal he set himself when starting out.
He’s been called the “bad boy of ballet” but I saw little evidence of this in the film, instead witnessing breathtaking talent and a young man who questions his commitment to dance just as he is about to become a legend.
After he went viral as the star of David LaChapelle’s short dance film set to Hozier's "Take Me to Church", Polunin came out of retirement and returned to the stage, one hopes on his own terms. Apparently his sights are now set on Hollywood, where if he applies the same dedication and intensity, he will surely shine.
Rialto Channel's PERSONAL PORTRAITS Season, on Wednesday and Thursdays at 8.30pm in October