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Centennial Youth Ballet's Mini-Nutcracker is a beloved multi-generational tradition at Harpeth Hall

Centennial Youth Ballet's Mini-Nutcracker is a beloved multi-generational tradition at Harpeth Hall
Centennial Youth Ballet's Mini-Nutcracker is a beloved multi-generational tradition at Harpeth Hall

Tallu Schuyler Quinn ’98 and Helen Martin Nonn ’01

For 27 years, the Mini-Nutcracker has brought to life a young girl's Christmas dream in the Frances Bond Davis Theatre. The story of how the Mouse King, Sugar Plum Fairy, and Snow Queen came to pirouette and leap across Harpeth Hall’s stage, began nearly three decades ago when Margie Fish Martin ’67 approached then-Head of School Leah Rhys with an idea for an outreach effort. In the years since, the performance has become a beloved multi-generational tradition at Harpeth Hall, featuring young dancers from throughout Nashville and many Harpeth Hall students.

At its founding, the Centennial Youth Ballet (CYB), part of Nashville’s Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation Dance Division, performed at “The Looby,” a 218-seat theater named for famed civil rights leader Z. Alexander Looby. The performance space shined a spotlight on the talented group, and with each passing year, its signature ballet, The Mini-Nutcracker, grew in popularity. Soon, the small theater no longer fit the growing audience. Mrs. Martin was active with Friends of Metro Dance, the nonprofit that funds performances by CYB. She proposed that Harpeth Hall offer its 730-seat Frances Bond Davis Theatre as an alternate performance location. Mrs. Martin recalled, “I really wanted the dancers to have a larger space so that more people could go to see the show.” She continued, “I also wanted it to be an outreach for Harpeth Hall.” Mrs. Rhys supported the plan, and Mrs. Martin became the longstanding liaison between Harpeth Hall and CYB.

Meridian Cloniger (second from left) and Kate Linley ’25 (center)

Working closely with Shirley Blackburn, the supervisor of Metro Parks Dance Division and a parent of Harpeth Hall student Catherine Blackburn Kinsey ’95, the two solidified the partnership and met CYB’s need for more space. The Mini-Nutcracker, which began in 1981, first debuted at Harpeth Hall in 1995 and only missed one year (2020) during the pandemic. As part of the partnership, community centers in Davidson County were invited to bring children from throughout Nashville to a Thursday night dress rehearsal at no cost. Hundreds of young students would attend. “It was the first time many of them had seen a ballet and were exposed to something so beautiful,” Mrs. Martin said. Harpeth Hall faculty and staff were also invited to attend for free, something that was very important to Mrs. Martin and a tradition that stands today.

As the event grew, a block of reserved tickets was set aside for Harpeth Hall alumnae to view the Sunday performance, including a special reception during intermission. This year, Gloria Watson Graves ’49 plans to attend the performance with her great-granddaughter Grace, who is 5 years old and “can’t wait” to see the show. “The multi-generational aspect of The Mini-Nutcracker is part of what makes this event so special,” Mrs. Martin said.

Through The Mini-Nutcracker, Harpeth Hall helped increase exposure for Friends of Metro Dance and the Metro Parks Dance Division, which, according to its website, serves “toddlers to seniors, novices to professionals, and everything in between.” Mrs. Blackburn was instrumental in fulfilling the organization’s purpose for more than 40 years — providing high-quality, affordable dance training to children and adults in a supportive environment, providing resources to local dancers, and educating audience members about the dances they watched.

Kate Linley ’25

In 2014, Metro Council honored Mrs. Blackburn for her service, which had been critical to sustaining affordable dance within the public sector. In an interview with The Tennessean, Mrs. Blackburn said, "I think one thing that makes the program unique is that anybody — whether or not that child is talented, has any real ability — can come take class here for a reasonable amount of money, have a benefit of experiencing a performance and wearing a costume and seeing what it feels like to be on the stage without having to spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year to do it."

Palmer Reynolds ’29

The Mini-Nutcracker is performed almost entirely by young dancers, with one exception. A single professional dancer, the Cavalier, is included in the performance to partner safely with the amateur Sugar Plum Fairy.

Mrs. Martin watched her daughters, Margo Martin Cloniger '99 and Helen Martin Nonn ’01, and their cousin, Tallu Schuyler Quinn ’98, take the stage in the 1990s. This year, she will watch her granddaughter, Meridian Cloniger, a sophomore at Hillsboro High School, perform. Margo’s classmate, Emily Cummings Berry ’99, was the Sugar Plum Fairy when she was an upper school student. Her daughter Evelyn will be a party child and a baker this year.

Current Harpeth Hall junior Kate Linley '25 will lace up her pointe shoes to star as the Snow Queen. Kate started dancing when she was 2 and joined Centennial Youth Ballet when she was 5. This will be her 10th Mini-Nutcracker performance, this time in one of the three principle dancer roles.

“There is truly no other ballet studio like CYB,” Kate said. “The community we have there is the most supportive and loving environment that I've ever been a part of. The friends I have there are my closest friends, and I really think we will be friends for life. The alumni come back to watch our rehearsals, and they have all stayed in touch across states, which I think is pretty incredible."

Like her mother, Fran Bailey Linley '92, and aunt, Shelby Bailey '89, before her, Kate continues her family's long-term engagement with CYB. “One of the most fun parts of the show is when the dancers come out after the performance to meet and greet the audience. The children love it,” said Mrs. Linley.

Seventh grade student Palmer Reynolds ’29 will also perform as a mouse in Act I and a candy cane in Act II. “It’s such a special show,” said Palmer’s mother, Laura Reynolds.

 

The Centennial Youth Ballet presents The Mini-Nutcracker from Dec. 7-10 at Harpeth Hall.

Each year, swirling snowflakes, waltzing flowers, dancing bon bons, and giant mice battling miniature soldiers transport the audience to a world of entrancing fantasy. Designed to introduce children to ballet as performance art, the show is an abbreviated, narrated version of Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker Suite Ballet.” The production has a 90-minute runtime and has become one of Nashville’s – and Harpeth Hall’s – most popular holiday traditions for families with young children.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows are sold out. However, there are still a few tickets remaining for the dress rehearsal on Thursday, Dec. 7.

The Mini-Nutcracker is sponsored by Friends of Metro Dance and the Dance Division of the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation. Kathryn Wilkening is the current supervisor of Metro Parks Dance Division.