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Artist Profile: Dr. Merritt A. Moore ’10-’11 on Art, Science, and Saying ‘Yes’ to Both

Dr. Merritt Moore dancing with a robot.
Dr. Merritt Moore dancing with a robot. By Courtesy of Skjalg Bohmer Vold
By Marin E. Gray and Hannah M. Wilkoff, Crimson Staff Writers

Dr. Merritt A. Moore ’10-’11 excels at many things — particularly at saying “yes.” Since graduating from Harvard, Moore has said “yes” to a professional ballet career with the Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet, Boston Ballet, Zurich Ballet, and José Mateo Ballet; to a quantum physics career with a Ph.D. in atomic and laser physics from Oxford, eleven published papers, and an Adjunct Professor of Practice post at NYU Abu Dhabi; and even to stints on America’s Got Talent and the BBC series“Astronauts: Do You Have What it Takes?”

Moore also said “yes” to an interview with The Harvard Crimson, elaborating on how she balances multiple successful careers and works to meaningfully unite her seemingly disparate fields.

The former Eliot House resident is now well-known for her interdisciplinary work bridging science with the arts. During the pandemic, Moore conceived of a life-changing project blending her love for dance and science: programming robots and dancing with them.

“I couldn’t dance with humans. I wasn’t really sure where, career-wise, I was going. But I had the idea of dancing with a robot,” Moore said.

She then persuaded Universal Robots to lend her a robot for two weeks, and she uploaded videos of herself dancing with the robot.

“Those videos went viral. And then I got invited to perform live. And I would just say, ‘yes,’ and so I did,” she said.

The pandemic project bloomed into an international opportunity for cross-disciplinary conversations, from a robotic dance installation Moore choreographed and danced at the Victoria and Albert Museum to collaborations with Louis Vuitton. She has performed robot dances with the Boston Ballet as well as at the World Economic Forum, Forbes Women’s Summit, the opening of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence with Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and the Global AI Summit at the invitation of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Her innovation has also earned her features in TIME, Vogue, BBC, and Financial Times, and on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

Though the project is overtly artistic, Moore noted that its practical implications for the scientific problems of robotics and technology — like speed, velocity, acceleration, pressure, and dynamics between robot and machine — are profound.

“If one solves dancing with a robot in real time, then one has solved pretty much all the major breakthroughs needed for doing machine interaction in any scenario,” she said.

But Dr. Moore doesn’t just perform her interdisciplinary conversations — she also facilitates them in her classes at NYU Abu Dhabi. For Moore, creating opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration between the sciences and humanities is paramount. Moore now teaches “Creative Robotics and Tech” at NYU Abu Dhabi, infusing the classroom with her interdisciplinary approach.

Her students themselves bring a range of disciplines and contexts to the course. While some come from computer science and engineering backgrounds, others have no previous technical experience or come to the class from a primarily creative background. Moore emphasized the importance of finding a shared language to communicate ideas.

“The number one thing is finding a similar language, often, or similar experiences,” she said.

Although humanities and scientific fields are often divided into separate spheres, Moore sees them as more powerful when combined.

“Right now, we talk about them as separate. In order for them to come together, it has to be collaboration, but I think they should both be languages that everyone knows,” Moore said.

In her class, she balances teaching technical skills with projects that push her students to use their imaginations. She approaches assignments through a process of reverse-engineering, encouraging her students to “lead with their passions” and work backwards from exciting ideas to learning the skills for implementation. Given the rise of generative AI, she argues that knowing how to ask the right questions is even more important than being able to find the answers.

“What I emphasize with my class is that I care more about the questions and less about the answers, because we’re now in an era where Siri, Alexa, ChatGPT can answer a multitude of questions in seconds far better than we can,” she said. “If we look back in history, the best breakthroughs were from people asking really great questions.”

Though she has performed, spoken, and taught internationally, Moore still maintains a connection with the Boston area. In 2020, she was one of the first Visiting Artists in Residence at the ArtLab at Harvard, where she worked on developing her robot-human ballet duets. She also returned to her roots at the Boston Ballet, dancing with the company in “Winter Experience” and “Cinderella” this season.

This was a full-circle moment. Moore danced with the Boston Ballet during her time as an undergraduate at Harvard, and she first met the current Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet, Mikko Nissinen, while he was at Harvard teaching a class.

“It brings tears to my eyes, but I’m gonna admit it. It’s been a real treat, because it was something that I dreamed up that I could never do. And I thought it’s funny, looking back. When I was 19, I thought I was already too old and missed the boat for being a professional ballet dancer. I’m 36 now and still dancing professionally,” Moore said.

In a 2011 interview with The Crimson, Moore shared that she put her professional ballet pursuits on the backburner in order to continue her graduate studies in physics. However, she soon realized that she was too passionate about both interests to give up either.

“There was a part of me that was like, ‘Why not both?’ I’ve been trying to be a ‘good physicist’ and quit dancing, but there’s a part of me that just can’t seem to let it go,” Moore said. “And actually, it seems like it’s more work to try to hide from the physics world that I dance and hide from the dance world that they do physics.”

—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Hannah M. Wilkoff can be reached at hannah.wilkoff@thecrimson.com.

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