Forty and spectacularly fabulous

Schools Spectacular partied like it was 1984 as the NSW public school musical extravaganza celebrated 40 years. Alyssa Terese reports.

Students dressed in costume on a stage. Students dressed in costume on a stage.
Image: Schools Spectacular celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2023.

A crowd of 26,000 filled the stands at Qudos Bank Arena on 24 and 25 November to watch more than 5500 NSW public school students perform in the iconic cultural event that was the 2023 Schools Spectacular.

The logistics of the 2023 Spectacular were as impressive as always, with four performances featuring a 2600-voice choir, 2300 dancers, an 80-piece symphony orchestra, stage band, the D’Arts Ensemble for students with disability, the Aboriginal Dance Ensemble, and 149 featured performers – all under the guidance of more than 600 teachers and support staff.

If you missed out on this year’s Fabulous performance, you can watch it on demand on 7+.

A montage of photos of students performing. A montage of photos of students performing.
Image: Moments from the 40th Schools Spectacular.

A Spectacular family event

Newtown School of Performing Arts student and featured dancer, Juliette Andersen-Allen, has Schools Spectacular in her blood.

Juliette’s mother, Genevieve Andersen, who teaches at Paddington’s Glenmore Road Public School, had some of her students perform at this year’s shows.

Genevieve played the French horn in the Spectacular orchestra when she was a student at Ku-ring-gai High and celebrated her 18th birthday at the event.

Annette Andersen, Juliette’s grandmother, was teaching at Wahroonga Public when her school dance troupe participated at the first ever Spectacular in 1984.

“It’s so exciting and it makes it even better having my family here. They understand what it’s like because they have been involved since the beginning,” Juliette said.

A two-picture montage of three women and dancers performing. A two-picture montage of three women and dancers performing.
Image: Left: Annette and Genevieve Andersen with Juliette Andersen-Allen (centre) at rehearsals for this year's Schools Spectacular. Right: Juliette performing with her featured dance troupe.

Bollywood dancers debut

For the first time in the Schools Spectacular history, the St George Girls High School Bollywood Dance Troupe performed as a specialist ensemble in the item ‘Culturally Fab’.

Year 11 student Sarina Sainju auditioned to be a 2023 specialist performer, but when the Schools Spectacular team learned she was part of the dance troupe, they incorporated the performance into the show and invited the whole troupe to be involved.

Three of the performing students, including East Indian student Adya Swain, had finished Year 12 by the time Spectacular came around, but could not miss the chance to finish their high school journey on stage.

“I love to dance and I love to dance with these people. I wanted to do it one last time and I thought this would be a really good opportunity to do that, especially on such a big stage in front of so many people. Why would we not take this opportunity?” Adya said.

Dance troupe leader and proud Indian-Australian and South Asian dancer, Dr Rachael Jacobs, also has ties to the show, performing in one of the first Schools Spectacular’s when she attended Denistone East Public School.

“There’s a lot of the girls’ own work in the piece. It was really important to me that they had agency over the work they’d be showing and the way they would be collectively representing our culture,” Dr Jacobs said.

A two-picture montage of Bollywood dancers. A two-picture montage of Bollywood dancers.
Image: The St George Girls High School Bollywood Dance Troupe performed as a specialist ensemble.

Students wow in Aboriginal Dance Ensemble

Grafton Public School student Lennox Monaghan, 12, opened this year’s Aboriginal Dance Ensemble performance ‘Brolgas’ with a solo digeridoo performance to impress even the most seasoned of players.

Dancer Ivy Simpson from Kooringal High in Wagga performed her self-choreographed piece, ‘Country is a Feeling’, about her culture and connection to land as a proud Kamilaroi woman.

“It’s been a fabulous experience to share the stage with all my family and friends as part of the Aboriginal Dance Ensemble,” Ivy said.

Guided by tutors from Bangarra Dance Theatre, ‘Brolgas’ featured more than 200 students from 50 schools, including Brewarrina Central School students Aaliyh Boney Coffey, Taniqua Mirris and Jessie-Maria Walsh, who performed in the Spectacular for the first time.

“It means a lot to me to be a part of something this big and for it to be something about our culture,” Year 10 student Jessie-Maria said.

Brewarrina Central is a Connected Communities school where 90 per cent of students are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

A three-picture montage of students performing. A three-picture montage of students performing.
Image: Left: Grafton Public student Lennox Monaghan performs solo on the digeridoo. Centre: 'Brolgas' featured more than 200 students from 50 schools. Right: Kooringal High student Ivy Simpson performed her self-choreographed piece 'Country is a Feeling'.

Celebrating five years of SpecFest

Just outside the arena, students and visitors enjoyed SpecFest, an outdoor entertainment hub with food, chill-out zones and plenty of entertainment celebrating all things ‘Spectacular’.

The Millennium Marching Band circled the pavement surrounding the arena and performed hits including Michael Jackson’s ‘One More Chance’, while others participated in a poetry slam.

More than 440 students from 25 schools across NSW came together to perform in the Fabulous SpecFest Flash Mob. Students danced to Supernova, originally written and recorded by students at the 2015 Schools Spectacular and remixed into a 40th birthday version for the 2023 Schools Spectacular. Among the group were 157 students from seven regional schools on a three-day Schools Spectacular western NSW region tour.

In celebration of the 40-year anniversary, a group of past performers and teachers gathered to celebrate an ‘Alumni Moment’ on 25 November. Led by John Foreman and alumni co-host, Will Skarpona, audiences enjoyed featured performances by former featured artists Imogen Clark and Arlo Sim.

A two-picture montage featuring a marching band and people standing on and in front of a stage. A two-picture montage featuring a marching band and people standing on and in front of a stage.
Image: Left: The Millennium Marching Band performing. Right: A group of past performers and teachers gathered to celebrate an ‘Alumni Moment’ on 25 November.

Surround Sound – a focus on rural and remote students

The SpecFest main stage also featured the final rounds of the rural and remote band competition, Surround Sound, providing a platform for student musicians from country and regional areas.

The final saw winning band ‘KHS Funk Explosion’ from Kooringal High, ‘Glitch’ from Armidale Secondary College, ‘Jam Jar’ from Coffs Harbour Senior College, ‘Unrequited’ from Karabar High, ‘Joint Custody’ from Moruya High, ‘Ship of Thesius’ from South Grafton High and ‘Scream Street’ from Willyama High, battle it out in four shows across Friday and Saturday.

Audiences sang and danced along to covers and original compositions, from blues to pop, gypsy, folk, rock, funk, progressive and grunge.

Arts Coordination Officer Simon Kermode said choosing the bands to perform at SpecFest was always difficult as the standard of entries was impressive. He said it was an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the talent that exists outside the major metropolitan areas.

“Surround Sound supports the fantastic work being done in our rural and remote schools and provides an opportunity to perform outside of what they may typically have access to, as well as getting to work with like-minded peers from across the state,” Mr Kermode said.

“To help them prepare, each band received a school-based workshop from industry professionals as The Arts Unit really wanted to foster the students’ performance skills before they hit the stage at Sydney Olympic Park.”

A three-picture montage of singers on stage. A three-picture montage of singers on stage.
Image: Surround Sound featured bands from rural and regional public schools across NSW.

The Schools Spectacular is proudly supported by sponsors and supporters, including Telstra, NSW Teachers Federation, School Bytes, RØDE, Smartsalary, Teachers Health, Colmed Group, Steinway Australia, Sony Australia and Event Partners: Qudos Bank Arena, Seven Network and Ticketek.

Want to apply for Schools Spectacular 2024? Applications open 30 January 2024. See the application page for further information.

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