Jonathan Holloway tells the story of a visitor at last year's Perth International Arts Festival who put her hand in her pocket and found some sand, some wheat and a feather and said: "That's a very rustic festival you run."

The Festival artistic director laughs at the thought of these accidental mementos of key elements in the 2012 program: a choir standing barefoot in the Cottesloe sand at dawn to open the 60th Festival, people crawling one at a time through a pile of wheat in the sensory labyrinth Oraculos and the cavorting French aerialists dumping feathers over an ecstatic crowd in St Georges Terrace.

"I have a tendency to program for all five senses," Holloway says.

Arts festivals should challenge the mind and preconceptions of the world but they should also work from the eyes down, not just the brain. "There are more ways to affect people than just the intellect. I think the Festival should appeal to all five senses."

Jump to Festival 2013 and the prospect of another tactile experience. The bare sand beckons once more, this time at Matilda Bay at dusk, with performances by Archie Roach and a Noongar choir on February 8. The next night, the smell of sulphur and the pulse-racing power of French drums-and-fireworks show BPM (Bombs Per Minute) will fill Langley Park.

Grains of physical and mental nourishment, in the form of 30 tonnes of rice (1.54 billion grains), will be piled up in mounds of varying sizes by the UK's Stan's Cafe to represent statistics associated with every person in the most populous time zone in the world, our own, GMT+8.

The smell of pizza and sawdust will pervade the antique circus tent of Circus Ronaldo in Northbridge's Russell Square for La Cucina dell'Arte and the hoppy fug of pubs in Perth and Fremantle will envelop audiences at the National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

The Festival has a particularly strong family program, which also includes the surreal dance show Clouds from Spain's Aracaladanza and local company Barking Gecko's Duck, Death and the Tulip.

Children will get hands-on in the strung-out elastic spider web of Tangle, from Polyglot Theatre, while another Australian company, Arena Theatre Company, will lead our young ones (no adults allowed) three at a time through the living, slumbering The House of Dreaming where touch and smell will be stimulated along with the imagination.

Holloway says shows like these reflect the fact that much of the best in new Australian work is in the area of theatre for young people.

"It does seem like a strong time for work for families and young people," he says. "I don't know if that reflects a nation that has youth and ambition within its very DNA or if a bunch of very talented people at the moment are running these sorts of companies."

There are big names aplenty across the rest of the program: Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, Dublin's Gate Theatre, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Ballet National de Marseille, Dead Can Dance and British conductor Sir Richard Armstrong leading the WA Symphony Orchestra and WA Youth Orchestra through a rare Bartok double bill.

In the revamped Festival Gardens, the line-up includes funk titan Maceo Parker, indie rocker Cat Power and hot rapper Macklemore.

American artist Jim Campbell (a Kings Park light-bulb installation called Scattered Light) and British collective Greyworld lead the visual arts program and Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood heads the Perth Writers Festival line-up. All the visual arts and most of the writers program are free.

"Festivals ought to be locations for bright people talking about bright ideas," Holloway says.

The idea of illumination being about more than the light-bulb moment in the head informs many Festival attractions, including the moody combination of a light-art and choral music performance in Tenebrae et Lux.

In Subiaco, the main street of Rokeby Road will close down for four nights to become a vast free theatre, art gallery and peepshow called La Marea, which sees nine short scenes repeatedly played out in windows, balconies and cafes as viewers wander between them.

"You come out of it feeling you have seen a film about your city and like you have been on the film set for two hours," Holloway says. "For me, that is an essential Festival experience which helps you see the city in a new light."

Created by Argentine director Mariano Pensotti, La Marea will be remade with a specific Perth flavour. It will involve local performers through the Festival's expanded Vital Stages program which fosters local and international collaboration and commissions new shows by WA artists and companies.

For all the complexities and head-scratching logistics of a multi-arts festival like ours, Holloway says it is underpinned by some basic principles: presenting the best international artists, showcasing the stories and talents of a remote city vitally connected to Asia, temporarily disrupting the everyday rhythm of the city and encouraging audience participation.

"The 21st century Festival is a conversation," he says.

"Nowadays we announce the Festival and it is tweeted about and Facebooked and people are critiquing it on a minute-by-minute basis so the relationship is circular rather than linear."

Despite all the digital-media changes that have democratised production in recent years, nobody has invented the digital platform that can change crap art into great art, Holloway says. "It has always been garbage in - garbage out."

The West Australian

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