Three things with Charmene Yap: ‘These little screwdrivers have been my saviour’

For her latest work, award-winning dancer and choreographer Charmene Yap took inspiration from a decades-old social experiment. In the 1970s, researcher Dr Alexander Schauss found that a particular shade of bubblegum pink has a calming effect. He convinced a correctional facility in Seattle to paint their prison cells in the hue – and observed a reduction in hostile behaviour among those confined in the pink-walled rooms. Reading about that research prompted Yap to create Drunk Tank Pink, which explores how we are affected by cues from the world around us, without realising it.

Yap is preparing to unveil Drunk Tank Pink next week as part of the Sydney Dance Company’s 2022 New Breed season. As a new mum returning to work, getting the production ready over these past months has been “intense, exciting, exhausting, challenging and inspiring all at the same time”.

Crucial to her sanity as a parent is a set of screwdrivers Yap was given by her father many moons ago. Here, the dancer and choreographer tells us why those tools have been her “saviour” this past year, as well as the story of two other important personal belongings.

What I’d save from my house in a fire

A handmade yellow tartan dress. My mum’s a bit of a hoarder – not to the full scale, but enough to keep things like offcuts of fabric that she might one day use to make something.

One weekend when I was about 21 – fresh out of Waapa, in between jobs as an independent dancer, and having a little bit of an existential crisis – I came across the stash. Among the flowery patterns, I found 2.5 metres of the most amazing, vivid yellow tartan. Mum had bought it back in Singapore, when she was just about to migrate to Australia. The fabric was perfect and it was perfect timing discovering it.

I took it with me on my next project in Melbourne where I stayed with Paula Levis, a costume designer. Paula, who is an incredibly generous soul, offered to help me create a dress. Together we cut, sewed and pieced together a one-of-kind dress. It has a high neckline, fitted bodice, scooped skirt, a ruffle tail, and a heavy-duty zipper running down the length of the back.

I’ve worn this dress numerous times, to opening nights, award ceremonies, just for fun. It represents many highlights in my career and is symbolic for me during times of difficulty, woven from beautiful memories of the wonderful women in my life. It’s precious, it’s handmade, created from love, history and hard work. I haven’t worn the dress in a while, but maybe it’s time I whip it out again.

My most useful object

For some reason my dad once gave me a very old set of tiny flathead screwdrivers, so vintage the brand has rubbed off. These aren’t the ordinary set you can buy at any hardware store.

All we know of them, which is written on the inside of the box, is that they’re “precision screwdrivers” made in Japan. There are six of them, ranging from 0.8mm to 3.8mm wide, with silver handles. They are unassuming, simple and elegant. The reason why I’m going into such detail about them is because these little tools have had a disproportionate impact on my life. I would go as far as to say they’ve been my saviour this past year.

Related: 'A totally different way of dressing': Carla Zampatti on her three most useful objects

The reason for this is my one-year-old son. We’ve accumulated a bunch of those incredibly annoying colourful plastic toys, handed down from friends and family. They make all the right moos and bas, but need new batteries after generations of usage. These tiny screwdrivers have unscrewed and re-screwed so many toys, providing distraction for bub when he was non-stop crying, bored or hyperactive.

The item I most regret losing

One morning recently, between walking my son around the local hood and riding my bike to work, I lost my left-side AirPod. It’s incredibly unfortunate that it’s the left side that I lost. I need my left side. My left side is more dominant, I’m left-handed with most things, so I think my left ear hears more. Is that a thing? I can imagine when I put in that remaining right-side earpiece, I’m missing all sorts of detail in the music I listen to and the people I speak to. Like my husband saying to me, “I’ve cleaned the skylight,” rather than, “I’ve plotted side lights” – which actually makes a lot of sense in our industry.

I also suffer badly from motion sickness, which is funny since I’ve made my career in movement. I think it’s getting worse the older I get, something about the inner-ear balance. Anyway, the one-ear AirPod is not helping. It makes me a little queasy.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I lost it. The dancer in me thinks it’ll get my right ear to work harder, my brain to work better, and maybe tap into some new sensations I haven’t accessed yet. Or maybe it’ll just make me really frustrated.