A new performing arts spectacular is taking centre stage for young stars, writes Kristie Kellahan.
Budding young performers were left disappointed late last year by the news the Rock Eisteddfod Challenge, a performing arts extravaganza held annually since 1980, would no longer be putting on the razzle-dazzle because of funding shortages.
This year, young stars can claim their place in the spotlight at the Wakakirri Secondary School Challenge, which is set to replace the Rock Eisteddfod as Australia's largest annual arts event for secondary schools.
It is available to schools in NSW and Victoria, and there are plans to expand nationally.
Blake Fatouros is the dance co-ordinator at MLC School, a pre-K to year 12 independent girls' school in Sydney's inner west.
He teaches integrated dance and drama subjects, as well as co-ordinating the school's extensive after-school dance program.
Students from MLC School have participated in Wakakirri, most recently with a moving performance entitled The Shape of a Girl.
Based on a true story, the piece explores an instance of bullying that led to the tragic murder of 14-year-old Reena Virk by a group of her peers in Canada.
The performance involved 70 students from MLC's contemporary dance company, Jazz Company, year 9 dance elective and year 11 entertainment industry class.
"When Wakakirri launched the Secondary Schools Challenge, we decided to enter to give our students the opportunity to perform alongside other schools in a professional theatre," Fatouros says.
"As teachers, we also thought it was important to support initiatives like Wakakirri in the hope that the event will continue to run and give kids opportunities."
As the school's Wakakirri producer, artistic director and student mentor, he is involved in all the background administration, as well as developing ideas for the performance and guiding students to help realise their vision.
"For teachers, it allows you to develop positive connections with your students beyond the classroom. It allows you to use the arts as a powerful teaching tool to explore issues that affect your students beyond what is in the structured curriculum," he says.
The benefits to students participating in the festival are numerous, Fatouros says.
"It gives them the opportunity to share their skills with an audience beyond their school community.
"It is one of the few places left that gives students a voice in the community, utilising the arts to enact social change and education.
"It allows students from different age groups to work in a supportive, creative and collaborative environment.
"It builds self-esteem and sense of self-worth."
While the Wakakirri Secondary School Challenge shares some similarities with youth arts event Rock Eisteddfod Challenge, there are significant differences.
Wakakirri guidelines restrict the number and size of theatrical sets used, and reduce the length of performances, Fatouros says.
"The new event will challenge how teachers and students approach and develop their performances, as you can't rely on the heavy use of set to tell your story or create a scene.
"I have been involved with events like Wakakirri for the past 15 years and they have been some of the most memorable in my career," he says.
"To sit back after six months of rehearsals and watch your students perform and engage with subject matter that is important to them is a truly magical experience."
For more information, see wakakirri.com.