Penelope Koulos is dancing one of the three hardest roles in "The Nutcracker Ballet" this month. But when she takes the stage Sunday, she can rest assured that at least one third of the audience loves her unconditionally.
Penelope, a junior at Wilson High School in Long Beach, got cast as one of the three Sugar Plum Fairies in Ballet Repertory Theatre's annual holiday production at Golden West College. When the company invites the local Greek American community Sunday for its annual Greek Night performance, Penelope can expect some hearty applause – she's the first Greek ever to dance one of the, well, plum roles in the ballet.
"There's no pressure," Penelope, 16, said during rehearsal Friday. "To them, we're all wonderful. They cheer for everyone."
According to spokeswoman Sylvie Nguyen, the company began hosting Greek Night four years ago after it noticed a large crowd from Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Long Beach coming to support members in the show's cast. Every "Nutcracker" production for at least the past four years has featured Greek dancers, Nguyen said; this year's cast features eight, including Penelope.
On the Greek Night show, the directors shuffle the cast to put Greeks in more prominent roles. Still, having a Sugar Plum Fairy from Assumption is a first, and Nguyen expects the Greeks to make up at least a third of the audience, including Penelope's parents and four siblings.
In past Greek Night shows, she said, audience members have sometimes punctuated dances by shouting "Opa!", a Greek word that loosely means "Bravo!"
"They're willing to come from Long Beach over here to watch us," Nguyen said. "The atmosphere on that night is electrifying. Everybody cheers so loudly."
For Penelope, the youngest Sugar Plum Fairy in this year's production, applause will just be part of the reward. In the "Nutcracker" hierarchy, the fairies are the most difficult and sought-after roles, and many children enter the cast at nursery-school age and work their way through angel, soldier, doll and other parts before snaring one of the leads.
Ballet Repertory Theatre, led by Artistic Director Anthony Sellars, debuted "Nutcracker" in 1977 and has changed the production little over the last three decades. The two-act Tchaikovsky ballet, which premiered in Russia in 1892, tells the story of a young German girl who receives a toy nutcracker by her godfather on Christmas Eve, then finds herself whisked away on an adventure when the nutcracker comes alive during the night and defends her against an army of mice.
In the ballet's second half, the nutcracker turns into a prince and guides the girl to the Land of Sweets, a fantasy world where the Sugar Plum Fairies and other characters reside. The fairies are only onstage for about 25 minutes, but they perform the most challenging footwork and eye-catching lifts, Penelope said.
"It's every little girl's dream to be a Sugar Plum, so it's a big deal when you get it," she said. "But it's a lot of work."
If You Go
What: "The Nutcracker Ballet"
Where: Mainstage Theater, Golden West College, 15744 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 17, 18, 21, 22 and 23; 2 p.m. Dec. 18, 22 and 23; 5 p.m. Dec. 19; and 1 p.m. Dec. 19 and 24
Cost: $16 general admission, $15 seniors and ASB/Golden West students, $14 children under 12