THERE was a problem. The television cameras had been waiting to roll for an hour, the journalists were tapping their pens, the musicians had warmed up for the second time. But the Whirling Dervishes had still not appeared for their press call. It transpired that the changing rooms had no running water. And dervishes, apparently, cannot even think of whirling until they have performed the appropriate ritual ablutions. After lengthy negotiations a compromise was made. Bottles of mineral water and plastic basins would do. Just this once. It was just one of many minor headaches for the organisers of the biennial Adelaide Arts Festival, which continues until the weekend. It's the biggest in the eastern and southern hemispheres, and - together with a full-scale Fringe Festival, a Writer's Week and a drop-in visit from WOMAD world music performers - an arts extravaganza second only to Edinburgh's annual event. The 1996 Telstra Adelaide Festival features more than 50 companies from 33 countries, with 16 world premieres, another five Australian premieres and numerous Australian debuts. There were only a few niggling hitches, including former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren extending his 11/2-hour 'cyber lecture' (a lot of lecture, a few slides, no cyber) to 41/2 hours. By the time the interval arrived the champagne was flat, the chardonnay warm. Or at the opening night of Nits, a thought-provoking show about children being hungry by French company Image Aigue, when there were three sets of people laying claim to the same row of prime seats in the stalls (identical ticket numbers). The English would not, I fear, have been so jolly. Especially if, as was the case, they were the main sponsors of the show. But God bless the Aussies: they took it as a great joke, and accepted worse seats scattered around the Royalty Theatre without a word of complaint. Everyone I talked to - and no doubt many I didn't talk to - thought this 19th arts festival in Australia's 'Festival State' was the biggest, best run, and most exciting ever. It was billed as '17 days and nights of debate, dissent, entertainment and euphoria; 17 days of mind-blowing, foot-stomping, mouth-screaming intoxication'. And to entice Melburnians away from their Grand Prix - staged last weekend - the festival ran ads proclaiming 'there are amazing experiences to be had [in Adelaide] and none of them require ear plugs'. Tough claims to live up to, but no one was asking for a refund. Some of the performances were indeed provocative and entertaining, and the late-night bar certainly guaranteed the intoxication side of the bargain. Arts festivals can be strange events. In Hong Kong, as in many cities throughout the world, the trouble with a festival is that it's too easy to not even notice it is happening. Excellent acts - many touring on the international circuit - turn up, do their technical run-through, and appear at top venues. There's the bright glossy brochure, a wealth of choices, discussion of the best acts - often after they are packed and off to the next town - and suddenly it's all over and time for the film festival or whatever. In cities like Hong Kong, London or Toronto, a festival inevitably becomes just one small part of what's on offer in the larger metropolis. But in this small state capital - 'sleepy' and 'Adelaide' are often found in the same sentence, except every second March - the festival touches almost everyone. 'It's festive, which is more than you can say for most festivals; I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else,' says leader of the Kronos Quartet, David Harrington, who's been on so many tours to so many cities he claims to have had 'jetlag for 15 years'. 'Festival time is good business,' according to Italian-Australian cab driver Mario, who is doing plenty of overtime. 'Just the Arts Festival, though,' he says. 'The Fringe Festival people are too weird - coloured hair and rings in their noses, and they don't usually have money for taxis.' The Fringe boasts an impressive programme of 339 companies and 4,400 artists who perform in more than 180 venues throughout the city this month. And beyond the Fringe is the fringe of the fringe. Performers like Aboriginal poet Irving Campbell, the 'bushwagon swaggie' outside a clothing store in the centrally located Rundle Mall, who recites vivid pieces about cockatoos and bush bars to bemused passers-by. His, though, was one of the least bizarre acts in the mall. 'Hold tight on to my bottom [for balance],' commanded a young Englishman in dungarees as he prepared to dive on to 'the sandwich board of death'. A shopper obediently did as demanded. 'This is not live TV, this is not your personal computer. This is live theatre and it's happening,' chanted three Sydneysiders in purple jumpsuits as they practised funny walks and crowd abuse. The Fringe has its reputation for wackiness but this year's Arts Festival crowd have hardly been mainstream either, thanks to the vision of artistic director Barrie Kosky who, at 29, is the youngest festival director in the event's 38 years. 'I don't think there's any doubt that the big festivals that work - Edinburgh and Avignon and Adelaide - are all small and all have a lot of community support behind them,' said Kosky. Wearing a five o'clock shadow and bursting with energy, he explained his views on what makes a festival work: 'The most successful festival is when people can come in from outside and feel part of it, or they can come from outside and feel that the city changes.' Part of the exuberance is created by a series of free events organised throughout the festival period. The opening-night concert in Elder Park featured the South Australia Symphony Orchestra and guests on a special open-air stage. It attracted some 30,000 people. The next night another huge crowd gathered to hear a programme including Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Tchaikovsky's perennial 1812 Overture. The crowd sipped beer and sparkling wines while cannons and fireworks exploded over the Torrence River. The free festival included more than a dozen visual arts exhibitions including one at the newly opened wing of the Gallery of South Australia and a series of riverbank installations with the theme Ruins of Tomorrow. But one of the most interesting innovations was 'Red Square', a custom-built venue representing a triumph of urban decay design. Built from shipping containers and wooden benches, the metaphor was transportable culture, and the feeling was of one big party. There were free shows there every night, roller-bladers, female impersonators, punk flamenco guitarists - the entertainment started at 11pm and the festival bar was hopping until three. Jazz mambo virtuoso Tito Puente appeared at one of the early Red Square sessions, jamming with the fabulous Taiko Drummers of Ota. 'I have never done this before,' he announced, and the crowd roared. Next door to Red Square was the Writer's Week venue. Speakers included E Annie Proulx (Shipping News ), Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man ), Tim Winton (The Riders ) and Jostein Gaarder (Sophie's World ). The two marquees were packed and it seemed there was a permanent queue at the temporary bookshop. There was a refreshing eccentricity about the whole festival. Thanks to Kosky's vision, the Hills Hoist - that upstanding circular washing-line invented in Adelaide and an icon of Australian suburbia - was the ubiquitous symbol of the festival. There were hoists draped with flags and slogans, others burning with Olympic-style flames, more used as temporary lamp-posts. Inside the Festival Centre itself a huge hoist was suspended magnificently from the ceiling, a washing-line chandelier pinned with 500 glass pegs, each holding an electric candle. Adelaide might be the biggest festival in the region but it doesn't go it alone. The organisers have, for some years, had strong links with Hong Kong, Perth and Wellington. The four cities comprise a good circuit for performers. Shared this year were the Kronos Quartet, Young Vic's version of Grimm Tales, Tito Puente, Arturo Sandoval and the Handspring Puppet Company. 'It means we can tempt people all the way down here without them also going to Sydney and Melbourne,' Kosky said. 'The difficulty is having four artistic directors, all with different tastes and preferences.' In a year where Hong Kong's arts festival was the riskiest and most exciting ever, Adelaide's - with a budget of A$12 million (HK$71 million) - was possibly even more so. One of the top-billers was the brilliant Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, which presented Gaudeamus, a play in Russian that runs for 21/2 hours without a break. It sounds potentially terrifying but the piece - about life in a construction battalion in the snow - was so strong that the run was sold out just days after opening. Or there were those famous dervishes, who did not so much whirl as spin (an important technical difference for anyone who likes their religious ecstasy to have a frenetic element). There was Belgian theatre and a play in rhyme about people living in Adelaide (sounds dire, but Matt Rubinstein's Solstice was a triumph). The strangest piece in the first week was called Angels Margarit. A dancer from Barcelona invited up to 12 people at a time to her suite at the Hilton Hotel. Ignoring the onlookers, she would then dance around for a few minutes and start flicking on the TV or wandering around her room. It invites the audience to question their role as observers. But the main thing audience members observed was that, at A$20 each for a 15-minute peek, Angels is not doing badly. Kosky explained that he is able and encouraged to take more risks than other festival directors, partly because he, according to Adelaide tradition, only has tenure for one festival. And at the end of the day he doesn't have to count beans. He explained: 'I am paid to be the artistic director, and while I'd love to have the theatres packed, and for us not to lose money, it is not my responsibility.' Kosky's agenda goes far beyond just drawing even. 'Our priority is to encourage younger audiences, aged between say 18 and 35, to come to the festival,' he said. 'If we don't do that, then in a few years' time we'll find that a sizeable chunk of the audience is just not there anymore. You have to start building up, so people will come because they want to, not because they have to.' It involves changing the notion of what the festival is, Kosky says. 'It's not to say that younger audiences just want loud rock groups,' he says. 'Some like contemporary ensembles like Kronos, others like to see film, others like to see modern dance. 'But whatever it is, you have to seriously engage with them. And show that just string quartets and opera productions are not what we're about.'