For five heady weeks, 1,200 artists will be dazzling and delighting the crowds EXCITEMENT IS building for the festival's selection of innovative programmes, which run the gamut from the sacred to the profane. From February 16 to March 20, Hong Kong's stages will come alive with an amazing array of local, regional and international talent, with more than 1,200 artists involved in the five-week programme. The 2005 Hong Kong Arts Festival, now in its 33rd year, is set to feature 54 shows, including Latin jazz, gospel and northern Indian gypsy music, Chilean puppetry, Beethoven's nine symphonies, contemporary Chinese and homegrown Hong Kong theatre, French acrobatics, Spanish dance and much more. 'The starting point for the programming of this festival was the idea of contrasting opposites - 'the sacred and the profane' or 'spiritual and secular',' according to Arts Festival Society executive director Douglas Gautier. This theme is epitomised by the opening and closing selections. Verdi's intense Otello, presented by the 40-year-old Polish National Opera, officially starts the festival, while a sensual performance by the Ballet Nacional de Espa?a concludes the programme on a celebratory note. The programmes cover the full spectrum, from the sacred to the profane. Ensembles and presentations include the Russian Orthodox Choir, the Kun Opera The Palace of Eternal Youth (featuring costume and set designs by Oscar-winner Tim Yip), Nobel laureate Dario Fo's one-man cabaret Johan Padan and the Discovery of America, and the contemporary Italian ballet troupe Compagnia Aterballetto. Mr Gautier said one of the festival's key strengths was its focus on commissioning new dramatic works. This year's commissioned dramas include Amber by the pre-eminent National Theatre Company of China, The French Kiss by Hong Kong playwright Chong Mui-ngam and The Nightingale, a collaborative effort between British and Hong Kong artists. 'We believe very strongly in a curatorial approach,' Mr Gauthier said, adding that the festival aimed to expose expose to a diverse range of performing arts, unmatched by other arts events in the region. 'The festival should be different from what happens during the other 11 months of the year,' he said. 'It should have the excitement of new works; it should take risks and stretch performers and audiences.'