How Quantum Physicist Ballerina Merritt Moore Learned to Dance With a Robot (Plus, Her Newest Film)

November 17, 2020

When the world went into lockdown last March, most dancers despaired. But not Merritt Moore. The Los Angeles native, who lives in London and has danced with Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet and Boston Ballet, holds a PhD in atomic and laser physics from the University of Oxford. A few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, she came up with a solution for having to train and work alone: robots.

Moore had just come out of a six-week residency at Harvard ArtLab focused on the intersection between dance and robotics. “I knew I needed something to look forward to, and thought how bizarre I’d just been working with robots,” she says. “Who knew they’d be my only potential dance partners for a really long time?” She reached out to Universal Robotics and asked them to collaborate, and they agreed to send her a robot to experiment with.

In August, the robot now known as “Baryshnibot,” arrived at her London apartment. Since then, Moore has spent countless hours working in a studio space provided by The Koppel Project, choreographing duets for herself and Baryshnibot and posting recordings of them to social media. Moore’s Instagram and TikTok videos have since yielded up to 15 million views, and starting in December she and Baryshnibot will be part of a two-month gallery show at The Koppel Project Exchange in central London. “It’s just oddly a magical time during a very difficult period,” she says of this unexpected success.

Merritt Moore drapes her upper body over the base of a robot and extends her right leg high in the air. The robot arm rests against her lifted leg.
Alice Williamson, Courtesy Merritt Moore

Baryshnibot is an industrial robot normally used for automation and manufacturing. “It does not look impressive at all,” says Moore. “But there’s so much potential for different movement.” Creating dances for a robot, she says, is like an elaborate puzzle: “I have to figure out how to make this six-jointed rod emulate the dance moves of a head, two arms, a body and two legs.”

Moore started with the basics. She’d learn a simple TikTok dance, and then map the movements into a computer pad attached to the robot. “The 15-second-routine will take me five-hours-plus to program,” she says. Despite the arduous process, she’s built up to more advanced choreography, and is trying on different dance styles, from ballet to hip hop to salsa. For her newest pas de deux, titled Merritt + Robot, Moore worked with director Conor Gorman and cinematographer Howard Mills to beautifully capture her work with Baryshnibot on film. (Check it out below!)

Choreographing for a robot comes with unique challenges. “It’s hard to program the smoothness of circular motions,” say Moore. “That’s when I’ll go off to the techie side, and talk to scientists to figure out how to make it more interactive.” When they dance together, the onus lies on Moore to keep up with Baryshnibot; unlike a human partner, it can’t always respond in real time. But Moore believes that the years she’s spent dancing in the corps have prepared her for the challenge. “When the dancers in front of you can’t see you, it’s up to you to be in line with them,” she says. “It’s like that—I end up taking cues from the robot.” Baryshnibot’s biggest strength as a dancer? “This thing never needs a coffee break,” says Moore, laughing.

Moore has received amazing feedback about her videos. A post crowdsourcing names for the robot drew over 200 comments, with favorite suggestions including “Roboto Bolle” and “Robot Nureyev.” (She happily settled on “Baryshnibot”). But Moore sees this project’s success as part of her overall mission to break down boundaries between the arts and sciences. “I love putting a different image out there, so people see that you can be really into science and tech and also be super-creative and artsy and feminine,” she says. “I like disrupting that stereotype.”