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A life of career changes: From Dancer, to Opera Singer , Choreographer and Director of Dance

Maria Koripas, Movement Director, Choreographer, Coach & former Director of Dance at Birkbeck University tells her story of not one, but several career changes. She had multiples careers, going from her childhood dream of becoming a Dancer, to the training to become an Opera singer that also led her to learn several languages. Because of her extensive experience both in singing and dancing, she was then offered more work to choreograph for the Opera before becoming Director of Dance at Birkbeck University.

This week for The Career Changers interviews, we met Maria Koripas, Movement Director, Choreographer, Coach & former Director of Dance at Birkbeck University. 

She tells her story of not one, but several career changes. She had multiples careers, going from her childhood dream of becoming a Dancer, to the training to become an Opera singer that also led her to learn several languages. Because of her extensive experience both in singing and dancing, she was then offered more work to choreograph for the Opera before becoming Director of Dance at Birkbeck University. Today she works on different projects – going from Opera, cross-arts productions, photography and film. 

Maria Koripas – Movement Director, Choreographer, Coach & former Director of Dance at Birkbeck University
Both Photos Credit: Kathryn Chapman

What is your educational background?

From school and the usual academic exams, I went to train full time as a dancer at Laban (Trinity Laban).

How many languages do you speak? 

I am Greek so, Greek is my native language and I speak English, 

What difference has the knowledge of these languages made in your life? Did it have an impact on the way you think? 

Being bilingual has helped me learn other languages like Italian and German. 

Both are at an elementary level and learnt through my later work in Opera.

Which job did you want to do when you were a child? Did you actually do it? 

I wanted to be a dancer, and I became one.

       How did you start your career as a dancer? 

After I completed my full-time training, I created my dance and music company, for which I choreographed short pieces involving dance and live music. I was then offered work as a dancer in videos, dance projects and a major contract at English National Opera where I performed continuously for 18 years.  

      Parallel to your career in dance, you also trained to become an Opera Singer.

Yes, alongside my career in dance, I trained to become an Opera Singer. I had to train vocally, and as mentioned earlier, I had to learn different languages and be coached in them for singing. This work in Opera took some ten years, and I had success as a principal soprano in various concerts, operas and had two movement-based operas written for me. I was semi-finalist in the Callas International Opera and Lied Competition (Athens) and finalist at the Robert Stoltz singing competition (Hamburg).

Through those years, I kept both my dancing and singing work going.

What was the key to your career change, from Dancer to Opera Singer? 

Being based in London has been essential. I was also fortunate enough to have the support of my husband so I could dedicate time and finance to maintaining my opera training on courses and one to one singing and coaching sessions alongside my performance work.

So you went from Dancer to Opera Singer, what was the next step after that? 

Having both dance and singing experience was a catalyst to attract more choreographic work and all of a sudden you had not one, not two, but three careers!

Yes! I was invited to do more and more choreography for Opera because I had both dance and singing experience. So at this point I was juggling three careers – dancing, singing and choreographing. 

Soon after, I started developing my work as an opera movement tutor and 

from this I was asked to develop a dance programme at Birkbeck University. 

You had in mind to create a part-time training for dance students that would provide the same preparation of a full-time programme. How did you do that? 

It was very demanding. I wanted to create a programme that would be as rigorous as full-time training but focused on part-time dance students, even though the hours were far less. I felt training had to be detailed for both the physical aspect and critical thinking. The programme grew from certificate courses to a Foundation Degree and then BA (Hons) Degree. Alongside this I was also teaching movement and choreographing scenes for the Opera and coaching movement for the concert singing programme at Birkbeck.

What di you do after living Birbeck? 

Since leaving Birkbeck 5 years ago, I have focused on working as a choreographer, movement director and movement tutor in the freelance world. This work has meant more travel in the UK and internationally.

Sometimes after having a long career and several experiences, it comes a time where all our skills and learning can be put together for a new way of living. Did this happen to you?

In a way, this phase has actually pulled all my experience together and enriched my process and creativity. My projects are very diverse from Opera, cross-arts productions, photography and film. 

I work with very different creative teams and performers, and because I understand the body and voice in performance, I use processes that integrate the two.

What lessons did you learn from your career changes? 

The biggest lesson from these shifts in my career has been the knowledge that I can adapt and challenge my thinking and approach constantly. Never staying comfortable with set ways and certainly being open to learning from those I work with.  

What are the highlights of your job? 

Key highlights for me, have been the incredible shared experience and feedback from those creatives and performers I work with. 

What is your typical day at work? 

I don’t have a typical day, but most often, I am researching and planning creative projects, and in lockdown delivering workshops online to prepare performers. Also, meetings to discuss potential projects and teaching. I tend to do a lot of walking and stretching whilst I cannot attend classes.

Has your career been impacted by the coronavirus? 

I have had projects resurface in the last few weeks, and so there has not been too much impact from COVID 19. I am concerned the industry will move too much into online processes as the arts need humans to interact face to face, and with this, they can share the space, inspire and create work together.

Why do you think changing a career is a good thing? 

I believe it is essential to allow for change – there have been quite a few for me but out of all the changes – although I remained in the arts, I have evolved and found new levels of thinking, creating and facilitating others.

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