Every year I say it's bigger and better and brighter and bolder - and it is!' Not much stops Lindsay McAlister in full flow publicising the Youth Arts Festival (YAF) she founded and directs. But then the budget her team has raised in this seventh year is $6.5 million, 150 performances and workshops are lined up and 140 schools, groups and organisations are involved, so you could argue she is more than a little justified. Programming is also getting increasingly professional. Last year's Dance 4 All successfully put all the dance programmes into one four-day slot. Now that is being followed through with the addition of Theatre 4 All and Music 4 All. 'You didn't just come along to see your child or friend in their dance piece with Dance 4 All, because there were several pieces on in the same evening,' McAlister says. 'That took the pressure off the groups to find big audiences and also exposed audiences to different styles of dance.' Also new this year are the workshops being run with the International Association of Theatre Critics before and after selected programmes to give young people the language to talk about the arts. 'Small children can find out a little about The Magic Flute, for instance, about Mozart and what to look out for. It will give them some words to use. Then they meet after the performances to talk about what they've seen. 'It is difficult to verbalise what you have seen if you are not usually exposed to it. This is something we could really develop to have an informed analytical audience, who look at arts with different eyes.' The festival's greatest coup this year, though, is persuading theatre designer Ralph Koltai to work on Shopping Circus. Walk through The Landmark during the festival and you will stride through a crowd of people you will never get to talk to. Their lips are permanently sealed. Koltai's life-size figures are 3D bodies created in three stages over three months. The charismatic Koltai, who interrupted work with the Kirov Ballet to join the project, devised the theme for the giant installation with 20 students from local arts institutions. The student artists then turned teachers and worked with more than 100 schoolchildren on developing the idea. The visual arts are particularly strong. Ex-YAF staffer Katie Flowers has used Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco to explore Renaissance methods of sculpting, anatomy, perspective and proportion. The result - poetry, music, sculptures, paintings and drawing - will fill the Atrium in the Arts Centre. 'It gives students the chance to experience the kind of multi-disciplinary learning the Renaissance was all about,' says Flowers. 'It was an astounding period during which diverse areas of knowledge were integrated. By following great painters such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci along their routes into learning, we can all gain knowledge that is not necessarily art-based, but that applies equally to art and to many other fields of human endeavour.' Asia at the Salon hangs works back-to-back and floor-to-ceiling in the Arts Centre for a project based on 19th-century Paris salons. Even the ever-upbeat McAlister was surprised by responses to the idea. 'I said to Mandy Chow [visual arts co-ordinator] I'd really like 50 schools involved,' she says. 'She came back and said you're not going to believe how many schools want to join: 62. So I said 'excellent - now get me 75', and she did.' Although there are some intriguing offerings on the performing arts front, McAlister's own shows do tend to put others into the shade. Fresh from the Edinburgh Festival where she took Matilda and sold out, she will be directing opera for the first time this year. Her Magic Flute is a contemporary, stark vision of Mozart's work in English and Cantonese, 'liberally' adapted by music director Jacqueline Gourlay Grant. 'The cast are incredibly funky. They don't want to leave rehearsals. They just want to keep going,' McAlister says. Her second show is West Side Story, set in America with, oddly, a Hong Kong look to it - 'lots of scaffolding and it has a very modern feel'.