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Charmene Yap steps into a new role at SDC

Charmene Yap. Photo by Peter Greig.
Charmene Yap. Photo by Peter Greig.

Sydney Dance Company (SDC) stalwart Charmene Yap will be finishing her performing career at the end of SDC’s Season 1 tour of Bonachela/Nankivel/Lane. Happily for Yap, she will continue her association with SDC, moving into a new role as Rehearsal Associate. We caught up with her on the eve of her new role and spoke about her performing career, as well as her plans for the future.

Tell us about the process of deciding to retire from performing to move into the role of Rehearsal Associate. 

Charmene Yap.
Charmene Yap.

It was a process actually, and continues to be a process, after having been with the company for 10 years! I have really grown with the SDC, having joined the company when I was 24. I’ve had so many amazing experiences, and I’ve seen and danced with so many incredible choreographers and dancers, and the breadth of experiences that I’ve had have just been full and incredible. 

So I think I have really come to a point over the past few years when I felt like I wanted to keep growing and exploring and learning new skills and keep pushing my boundaries. And we put so much energy into being a dancer, and the focus can be all consuming on one particular thing.

A while ago, I started doing interior design on the side because I just wanted to keep growing and being inspired in different ways. Architecture and Interior design have been important for me, to be doing something other than dance, something that gives me a larger perspective on life. But having said that, retiring was definitely a hard decision and one that I came to feel a bit all over the place to be honest. 

So while I made the decision, I didn’t make it alone. I started talking with Raf [Rafael Bonachela, SDC director] while I was still a dancer in the company, saying that I’d like to have a bit more responsibility if possible, because I’ve grown with the company and have become a senior member, and Raf has been giving me more responsibility such as taking rehearsals and helping out technically with the dancers.  

Charmene Yap. Photo by Pedro Greig.
Charmene Yap. Photo by Pedro Greig.

So we’ve been talking about this for a few years, and the natural progression came up a year or two ago. Raf started bringing it up, saying that he needed another person to support Chris Aubrey, our performance director, and he had always thought that I might be good at that. He said, ‘Look, I want you to keep dancing, but if this is something that you’re interested in, then I think it would be a great fit between the two of us as well.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, yes, definitely.’

And so I started thinking about it over the past couple of years. And I thought, ‘This is really hard.’ I think for any dancer to decide when to stop is a hard decision, because you do have to stop eventually. And at the same time, I know my body is in a great place at the moment. So I also want to keep that. I’m not saying no to performing; I’m just deciding in between the company and myself, so I decided that I’d stop full time dancing at Sydney Dance Company. 

So, long story short, it was a process of wanting a bit of a shift and a change. And the timing was right when the opportunity to step into this new role came up, so I was able to shift toward that.”

So what does the job of Rehearsal Associate involve? 

“I have somewhat of a vague job description. I think it’s going to be one of those things where you learn once you get into it. It’s just one of those jobs where you need to feel your way around – where to put your energy and knowing what is possible in relation to energy and time.

Charmene Yap. Photo by Pedro Greig.
Charmene Yap. Photo by Pedro Greig.

Practically speaking, I’ll be taking and assisting in running the company’s rehearsals that run from 9.30am to 6pm, five days a week, 11 months of the year. That’s pretty much full time, and of course, it shifts when performances start, with the rehearsals shifting later, so it changes. 

But with this particular role, it’s not just working with the company; it’s also working with the Pre Professional Year students so working on the educational side. For me, that’s exciting, because I have had so much experience and I’d love to work with people who are wanting to come into this profession, who are ready and training hard. So I can share a bit of, I don’t know, the experiences that I’ve had, and be able to push them to get to that level. And just for them to get a picture of how it really is in the profession, in a real live job!”                                                             

When will you be starting?

“Well, I actually finish in August, at the end of the SDC 50th Anniversary National Tour. We go on a regional tour for three weeks, and my last show as a performer will actually be in Hobart, on August 17. Rafa and I planned that timing when we were looking at the calendar and it seemed logical and clear cut. So I finish in August, and then I’ll have about four weeks off. Well, I don’t really have four weeks off, but I’ll have four weeks away, and right now, I’m not really doing anything, so it doesn’t feel like it’s actually happening.

Charmene Yap. Photo by Pedro Greig.
Charmene Yap. Photo by Pedro Greig.

But when I get back, I’ll be helping Gideon Obarzanek with rehearsals and helping him to choreograph a work, for the 50th Anniversary. So that will be a really new experience for me. It’ll be really interesting. I’m excited. I’ll just be choreographing and not dancing. I won’t be dancing in the final show. I mean, I might be doing something else. You won’t be able to see me, but I’ll be there. I don’t know if this is under wraps or not, but I will say that I’ll be helping with some of the general public who will be on stage at some point, and I’ll be assisting with some interaction.                                                                   

I’m, well, I’m just excited about working with Gideon. I’ve worked a lot with him. The second job that I ever got was working with Gideon at Chunky Move when he was the director. I was one of the originals in Mortal Engine, with Antony Hamilton and Sarah Black and Amber Haines. That was a while ago. but I’m excited to be working with Gideon again.”

Having spent the majority of your performing career with SDC, why have you remained loyal to the company for so long?

“Somebody just asked me that question the other day! I don’t know how, but I think I’ve got out of the company as much as the company’s got out of me, if that makes sense. I think there is such a wealth of knowledge in the company, and with so many dancers and creators that we have worked with, it has kept me inspired and motivated all these years.

My working relationship with Raf is also central. We trust each other and have developed a trusting relationship that has allowed us to develop and grow artistically. And so for me, it’s really been a great place to develop. I’ve been very lucky in the experiences that I’ve had.”

Who/what have been your main influences over the last 20 years?

“There have been a few, and all of them have been very different. My first, my very first dance teacher would have been the first major influence. She was the one who pushed me into dance in the first place. Helen Bennett nee Taylor was the owner of a ballet school in Northbridge, and she had started the school only the year before I joined. I was seven. She really supported me through those years, and in the end, when I had to choose between architecture and dance, she was the one who said, ‘Why don’t you give dance a go? You can always go back to architecture later if it doesn’t work out.’ While my parents were really supportive, if it wasn’t for her, I definitely wouldn’t have become a dancer.

SDC dancers Bernhard Knauer and Charmene Yap in rehearsal for 'Quintett'. Photo by Peter Greig.
SDC dancers Bernhard Knauer and Charmene Yap in rehearsal for ‘Quintett’. Photo by Peter Greig.

And then over the years, studying at WAAPA [Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts] was really amazing. I had so many great teachers. You know, there were lots, like Sue Peacock. There were so many amazing teachers there. And I really felt like I matured there. 

Tanja Liedtke definitely had a huge influence on me when I met her in my last year at WAAPA, and she really, really inspires you. I met her when I went to Taipei to do a three-week workshop in Taiwan, called The Taipei Idea. And Tanja Liedtke was one of the guest teachers. So I enrolled in her dance theatre course, which was something that I had never touched ever. And she was just so inspiring. She pushed me in a different direction and opened up an awareness of the potential that was inside me. She worked hard, and she expected hard work as well. She was an incredible force of nature that I was happy to have had at least a moment with. 

Jacopo Godani definitely had an influence on me. He came as a guest choreographer in 2011, so it was not long after I had joined the company. He’s Italian, and Rafael knew him and had invited him to create a work for SDC. He encouraged me to work on my ‘finesse’. I was trying to have this, this fluidity, and he really gave me something to play with — to understand how to use the body in a relaxed way but at the same time in a very economical, fluid but dynamic way. But as much as these people have influenced me, I’ve found that every choreographer, every dancer and my colleagues at SDC have influenced and always taught me something.”

What do feel has been your most satisfying achievement as a performer?

“Maybe it’s because I’ve just been dancing it recently, but I definitely really enjoy the duet that I do in ab [intra] with Davide Di Giovanni. It’s a 10-minute duet that I do with him, and we really put our heart and soul into creating it together. I think that is always such a journey. It’s exhausting, but by the end of it, it’s cathartic. It’s almost like you’re giving up your soul. 

Other achievements? I was really happy to receive the Helpmann Award, especially the first one in 2012. To be nominated is lovely, and it means so much to be recognised by your peers, so that was  really special to me.”

Charmene Yap. Photo by Justin Ridler.
Charmene Yap. Photo by Justin Ridler.

What do you think you will miss the most from performing?

“I think having an audience creates like an automatic reaction. I think that is something that everybody should experience to be honest; it’s such a rewarding thing to have such a blatant sort of appreciation. It’s really wonderful to feel that the energy, and the effort that you put in, has a visceral effect.”             

And what about getting hooked on that adrenaline?

“I used to get that more when I was an independent, because the time between performances might be a long period, so there would be such a build up for that one show that might run for a week or two weeks, and that was it. But once I started working steadily with SDC, you could feel the adrenaline, but you see it coming and you pace yourself better as you know you’ll be on to the next thing.”

In your career, who has been the most challenging and/or demanding choreographer or dancer that you have worked with, and why? 

“It’s always challenging and demanding, so there’s no one who really stands out. Maybe Emmanuel Gat (Satisfying Musical Moments, 2012). That was an interesting experience, and the process with him was actually really enjoyable as a dancer, although I’m not sure what the audience thought of it! It was an intellectual experience and one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a choreographer…very internal.

Certain choreographers can be quite demanding, because it can become quite personal and emotional because you’re putting so much of yourself in there and you want to please the choreographers. Everybody wants to be good at their job. Jacopo Godani, as much as he was giving, he was also very particular and demanding. So it’s a fine balance of  learning how to gain something, and to manage what you know of yourself and to be able to apply what they are wanting. And that ended up being one of my most rewarding experiences as well.”

As an original architecture student, do you see yourself reigniting your interest in that field?

Charmene Yap in 'Ocho'. Photo by Pedro Greig.
Charmene Yap in ‘Ocho’. Photo by Pedro Greig.

“Definitely! I’m not closing it off. That’s been the key for me over the past couple of months since announcing my retirement; it can feel like if I focus solely on dance, I feel trapped. I need to be open to another life and other opportunities. Just as much as I will never say never to performing again, I won’t say never to architecture either.

I’ve also found that having both an architectural and dance sensibility isn’t a contradiction or unhelpful. In choreography, how you use the stage space can be informed by architecture as much as dance. Also, the architecture of many of the theatres that we have performed in have had a memorable impact on my dancing. 

For instance, when we toured in 2011, to perform in the Venice Biennale, we performed in this ancient theatre with a raked stage which was something new for us, a contemporary company. Most performances on that sloped stage were obviously performed by classical ballet companies. Another memorable architectural/dance experience was the last time we performed in Barcelona at the Mercat de les Flors. This dance theatre in the hills above Barcelona was once a pretty amazing old flower market.”      

Your next steps, what do you believe you can bring to your new role?

“I hope with my experience that I’ll be able to bring a fresh approach and a new voice and be able to inspire dancers with something new that has been tested from my experience. Hopefully, they’ll trust in what I say, and I can bring something out of them. 

This goes for both the SDC company dancers, as well as the Pre Professional Year students. I have to be able to give something back and then also bring something new. That’s my aim. I don’t know if this eventuates, but we’ll see how it goes. I suppose it’s a bit like parenting when you have children, you think, how can I inspire them to be the best that they can be? And then watch them as they grow. I’d like to still do company classes as much as I can for my body to keep dancing, and it’s a good way to stay in tune with how to do things so that I can hopefully pass that on to other dancers.”

Are there any particular dancers or choreographers who you would be particularly interested in working with SDC in the future?

“Mats Ek would be interesting to talk with, also Sharon Eyal who is an Israeli who is  doing a lot of interesting work around the place. Another one would be Hofesh Shechter, whom we met while we were overseas, and he was really lovely. So of course I would love to have dinner with him; he’s really sweet and also creates amazing interactive work.       

I think I just want to meet as many people as I can. That’s the thing, and work with as many people as I can. Basically I want to keep being inspired by other people’s work to keep the creativity going and definitely bounce ideas off people. 

I know this is a bit silly, but my partner, Cass Mortimer, a former member of SDC. I realised after he left the company how incredible he is, and I sort of realised it would be great if he could come and work with the company in a creative capacity. But overall, I’m just grateful that SDC has positioned itself to work with a mix of national and international choreographers, which gives audiences and the dance community a real taste of everything that’s on in the dance world.

But even with all these changes in my life, I do still go to Bunnings on Sundays. Absolutely!”

By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa.

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