As Birmingham Royal Ballet brings La Fille mal gardée to the Sadler’s Wells stage, our Publications Officer Maxine fulfils her dream of meeting a very special star of the show… Peregrine the pony.
Before we get started, let me make this very clear: I am not obsessed with this pony. Definitely not. I may have chased him down the street once (more on that later), and even bought him a bouquet. Twice (more on that later too), but that doesn’t mean I’m obsessed. Sure, I like him. But obsessed? No. Never. Not me.
That’s not to say that there are other people who aren’t.
There is a small corner of the internet that is very jealous of me right now. A dedicated fandom, lurking within the larger ballet-loving community. A group of balletomanes (pun very much intended) who have been following the career of this pony with all the ardour of a teenage girl at a One Direction concert circa 2012.
Peregrine (like all the best ballet stars, he’s dropped his first name: Formakin) stormed onto the ballet scene nearly a decade ago in a performance of La Fille mal gardée, pulling the tiny trap that carries Lise (the Fille of the title) and her mother from their farmhouse out to greet the workers in the fields.
Along the way he is led by one of the more junior (two-legged) members of the company, while to his rear he is trailed by another dancer, carrying a trug that, under the cover of a cheerful looking cloth, contains a… well, let’s be blunt here, a not-so theatrical pooper-scooper, to be whipped out should any accidents occur.
And oh boy, do accidents occur, necessitating hasty clean-up and even hastier footwork as the ballerinas shift their pink satin pointe shoes away from the slippy patch.
Since then he has claimed the role as his own, touring it to stages all around the country with such regularity that his name is now pretty much synonymous with the ballet.
Caught on the hoof
I first saw Fille back in 2012. As a former devotee to the more histrionic storytelling of MacMillan, I was initially a little sneery at the thought of this schmaltzy Ashton ballet, where chickens dance, true love reigns supreme, and there’s no need for poison, swords or any weaponry beyond a few cheekily thrown cabbages (even the promising looking sickles are only used to fell wheat, which struck me as a waste).
Which is why it is somewhat surprising that, on a sunny evening in 2015, I found myself sprinting out of Pret, a half-eaten sandwich stuffed into my bag, and popcorn flying everywhere, in a scene that could only match Beatle-mania for sheer enthusiasm and adoration. Because there, trotting down St Martin’s Lane, his white coat gleaming in the evening sun as he headed towards the Royal Opera House for that night’s performance, was Peregrine.
A few second later, very red in the face and filled with regrets about my regular gym non-attendance, I caught up with him. I don’t exactly remember what happened next. It was all a bit of a blur. But I came away feeling like I could pull off even the grandest of jetés.
So, when I found out that Fille (and, more importantly, Peregrine) was heading to Sadler’s Wells with Birmingham Royal Ballet, I acted with both grace and decorum. I absolutely did not start my campaign to interview him the second it was announced.
I waited a full day. At least.
So how do you interview a pony? Enter Tom Davis, farm manager of Peregrine’s current London digs at Mudchute Park and Farm, who has known the equine star for more than eight years and was happy to act as intermediary.
I started with the basics: how old is he? “21.” Old for a pony. “He’s a more mature gentleman,” was Tom’s no-nonsense statement on the matter. “He’s not quite in his twilight years, but he’s doing alright.” But nearing retirement, surely? “What Peregrine does isn’t very taxing,” Tom assured me, noting the panic in my voice. “It’s not a very long stint. It would be entirely up to his owner when he retires, but he’s doing well. He’s still fit and healthy, and until anything shows to the contrary then he’ll carry on doing it, I imagine.”
His owner, George Gold, agrees. Peregrine’s predecessor kept on going until she was 30.
My little pony
Peregrine comes from a long line of hoofers stretching back to the 1920s. They’ve been performing in Fille for over 20 years (Superstar took over from the appropriately-named Lise in 1996). And matters, it seems, are in hand for the next trap-puller. “He’s been running with some mares, so hopefully there’ll be the pitter patter of tiny Peregrine hooves…” says Tom, ever so casually, as if he’s not giving me the journalistic scoop of a lifetime. “…in eleven or twelve months’ time.”
Oh. My. God.
It takes me a moment to recover from this bombshell. Have you ever seen a Shetland pony foal? I haven’t, but a quick Google image search tells me everything I need to know. I recommend you give it a go if you’re having a bad day. I really do.
One day a Peregrine Junior might end up pooping on the Sadler’s Wells stage. What a thought.
Tom hesitates. “If they are as good as he is,” he says. “Ponies, with the nature that Peregrine has, especially from an entire stallion, are very, very hard to come by.” Ah, yes. Shetlands have a bit of a… shall we say a ‘reputation’? “Shetland ponies are known worldwide to suffer from small man syndrome. But Peregrine is a chip off the old block, and I think they did break the mold when it came to him.”
“But, we can live in hope that he’s got a son and heir cooking, in Scotland, inside one of these mares he’s been running with. Hopefully he’s left her with more than just pleasant memories and he’s got a little baby in there that’s going to be as good as he is.”
Tom, as you can probably tell by now, has a way with words that leans towards the romantic.
I can see why though. Peregrine begs for poetry.
When I spot him inside his trailer, the sight of his familiar shape clamps down hard on my heart.
The stubby stockiness of his legs. The rotund fullness of his belly. His gentle eyes fringed with the palest of lashes.
And let’s not insult his colouring by calling him a ‘grey.’
He’s white. Very white. As white as snow. Or paper. Or the White Witch, Jadis herself. Looking at Peregrine, metaphors utterly fail me.
The fact of the matter is, he’s so white that there have even been rumours that he gets powdered down before going on stage. But they’re not true. Right? “Absolutely!” agrees Tom, sounding rather shocked. “No, no, no, goodness me. He might powder his nose but that’s about it.”
“He’s like the miniaturised version of the stallion in Shrek,” he continues, warming to the theme. “When the donkey gets turned into the horse, that’s him in miniature. He’s a poor man’s unicorn.”
While we’re on the subject, we have another rumour to dispel: Pantene. He doesn’t really use that… does he?
“Well, he has done in the past. For that kind of hair, you use anything. He’s been known to use a bit of L’Oreal.
“Because he’s worth it,” Tom adds, deadpan.
Peregrine’s fulsome fringe is as soft and voluminous as it looks, falling in enviable Veronica Lake fashion over his eyes. As a Mane ‘n Tail girl myself, I’m taking notes.
A stable performer
Peregrine on the farm, image credit: Tom Davis
Apart from being a stunner, and a nice chap to boot, Peregrine is also annoyingly talented. A true triple-threat.
No one who has seen him in action can forget the pawing motion he does with his hoof when his convoy comes to a halt in front of the drop cloth. “Sometimes when Peregrine’s impatient, he’ll paw the ground, because he knows the cues, he knows how long he should be stood in a certain place. There are a few behaviours that he’s learnt to do over the years, and that is one of them. Usually that’s him wanting to hurry everyone along a little bit.”
I’ve always wondered about the cues. What is it that Peregrine is responding to? “The dancers,” says Tom. “The music. Where he’s standing. They all add up, to give him his cue of when he should be doing what he’s doing.”
And he remembers it all? Sometimes years pass before a ballet company revives Fille. “He’s like a seasoned West End performer. To be honest, he knows a lot of it. And remembers a lot of it. Because it’s something that he’s done for many years. He knows when the harness goes on, what he’s meant to be doing.”
He’s certainly well behaved when I’m left holding his lead rope. He stands obligingly as we pose for photos on Rosebery Avenue, with a patience born of the utmost professionalism.
But what I really want to know is, what happens before the harness goes on. What’s his process? Is he method?
“On the days when he’s not there, he’ll be out in the field. But we have to make sure that he’s got a rug on, because of his colour. Because one of the first things he’ll do when you turn him out into the field is to roll. When the ground’s quite damp, he will go from being a nice whiteish-grey pony to being a very dark brown, dirty pony. It’ll be brushing him, giving him a brush off, and making sure he looks well. You might put a bit of hoof oil on his hooves to shine them up a little bit.”
And on the days when there isn’t time? When he’s expected to strut his stuff for the matinee and evening show? “He’ll have an area. It’ll probably be in the lorry, which is the size of a large stable on wheels. He’ll have hay nets and water buckets and a bed to lay down in, or the floor if he wants to. So he’ll relax how all ponies do. Eat a bit of hay, have a little drop of water, and maybe lay down and have a snooze.”
It’s probably for the best that neither Peregrine, nor his owner, indulges in social media. A quick glance through the #NaughtyPeregrine hashtag on Twitter will give you a glimpse into the collective love for this adorable pony. However, the #PeregrinesBouquet takes matters to an entirely different level.
In 2015, cinema goers around the world were treated to the sight of Darcey Bussell presenting an edible bouquet to Peregrine during the live stream of The Royal Ballet’s production of La Fille mal gardée. Paid for by the fans (Ahem…) the pink ribboned basket was put together and delivered by the ballet-bouquet specialists at Bloomsbury Flowers (only the best for this pony).
“It wasn’t until he’d done the last stint at the Royal Opera House and was presented with an edible bouquet, and his owner George came back to the farm with an entire bag of fan-mail, that I realised Peregrine had the following that he did. But then again, he’s a seasoned pro, very professional in what he does, and he’s quite an endearing pony. When people see him they do like him.”
“I have to admit, I did write one of those letters,” I say tentatively, wondering what sort of reaction I’ll get from Tom.
“Well, I imagine up in Scotland he’s got them over his stable wall or something like that,” he says sweetly.
So there. You see. Not obsessed at all.
I’m not the only one. “I was never a fan of Shetland ponies, and then I met Peregrine,” says Tom. “I think he’s a once in a lifetime pony, to be fair.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée runs from 1 – 3 Nov. Tickets are available now priced from £12. To book, call the Ticket Office on 020 7862 8000 or book online.