By Adam Parker
The Post and Courier
March 5, 2016
[Charleston, South Carolina, USA] – He was born in Houston, Texas, and lived in Clodine nearby during his earliest years. His dad ran a stucco factory, helping to make interiors look a little like the exteriors of Texas.
At 4, he came to Sullivan’s Island and spent much of his childhood in the Lowcountry, attending public schools (Sullivan’s Island Elementary and School of the Arts) and taking dance lessons.
At 13, he moved to New York City and began to embrace the likelihood that he would become a professional ballet dancer.
As a member of the New York City Ballet, Ball stays on his toes, performing regularly at Lincoln Center and joining tours that take him to the far reaches of the globe.
He will be in Charleston with the company for two performances of “Moves,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday [March 8th and 9th] at the Gaillard Center.
Ball will dance in two of the four pieces on tap: “Hallelujah Junction,” choreographed by New York City Ballet’s Artistic Director Peter Martins, and “In Creases,” choreographed by the company’s Resident Choreographer Justin Peck.
The show also includes “Bitter Earth,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon (also associated with the New York City Ballet) and “Pictures at an Exhibition” choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.
As soon as he moved to the Charleston area, Ball started dancing. His mother was fueling an artistic fire.
“Harrison was not an easy baby,” Vera Ball explained in an email. “However, as I had NPR in the background all day long, he heard a lot of classical music. Whenever it was playing, he was happy. When the music stopped, he was not.”
While other kids a year old were watching cartoons, Harrison, blanket and ducky in hand, stared at Metropolitan Opera productions aired on public television, Vera Ball wrote.
“(Husband) Kevin and I knew he was different from the get-go. The task was to get him from point A (Houston, Texas, and then Sullivan’s Island) to point B, realizing his gift and passion, in one piece both mentally and physically.”
Harrison Ball signed up with the Charleston Ballet Theatre, run by Patricia and Don Cantwell and Jill Eathorne Bahr. “I took him to all the studios in Charleston,” Vera Ball wrote. “He loved CBT because of the costumes hanging from the ceiling, the real theater atmosphere. He was not into the shiny, clean pretty studios — he was there to work.”
It wasn’t always easy, Harrison Ball said. At Sullivan’s Island Elementary, the other kids were into sports and didn’t sympathize with the interests of a young male dancer. At School of the Arts, he was absent enough because of his burgeoning career that, normally, the school would have expelled him. Instead, administrators cooperated with Ball and his family and bent the attendance rules, he said.
Early on, Ball was showing immense promise.
“When he walked in the door at age 5, I asked him to stand in first position,” Patricia Cantwell recalled. The young Ball imitated Cantwell with enthusiasm, and it became quickly apparent that he was “exceptionally well-coordinated,” she said. He had the right body type for ballet: long legs, arched feet, tall and lean build, good extension. “From that moment on I knew for sure he was going to be dancer.”
By age 7, he jumps were magnificent, Cantwell said. He was catching on fast.
His older brothers took karate lessons, and so Vera Ball signed up Harrison, lest he be the odd one out. A few weeks later he came to ballet class to tell Cantwell about a karate dilemma. His teacher, he told her, asked him to kick through a piece of wood!
“I’m very sorry, but Mrs. Cantwell would not allow me to do that,” he told his sensei. His feet were otherwise committed.
CBT choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr created several roles for him. He was cast as Michael in “Peter Pan,” as the changeling child in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as the young Arthur in “Camelot.” He appeared in “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
“When you had someone so brilliantly talented at such a young age, he could do far more than the average bear,” Bahr said.
At 12, he attended a summer program at the School of American Ballet, affiliated with New York City Ballet. The next year he enrolled again and settled in New York.
“I wasn’t sure about (ballet) as a career initially,” he said. “It didn’t occur to be that it could be something that would occupy your life.”
He was adjusting to the competition, the intensity of the workday, the sheer numbers of talented people, Ball said.
“We made sure to keep his life as balanced as possible,” Vera Ball wrote. “When it was clear there was no other path (which actually happened when he was 2, but was evident to all at 12), he was off to New York City and SAB. It was flat out scary as a parent. Kevin always said Harrison had street sense, and he was right. So many bumps and tears (mine), but never a doubt he should or could be anywhere else.”
By 15, Harrison Ball was ensconced in a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights, his parents helping to pay the rent. He was exploring what the city had to offer, enjoying himself, discovering himself.
“At 16, they started talking about contracts,” Ball said. New York City Ballet only accepts a few young apprentice dancers each year, and there’s no guarantee that they will perform with the company, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Ball was among the lucky ones.
Then he won a Mae L. Wien Award from the School of American Ballet, which came with a $10,000 prize and some good roles.
During this period, Ball was attending the Professional Children’s School near Lincoln Center, which provides academic training to young artists, and he was making lots of non-dancer friends and discovering his bohemian side, he said. His best buddy was a competitive figure skater. Other friends included musicians, actors, even an equestrian, “interesting kids,” he said.
At 17, he was broadening his artistic horizons, especially developing an interest in opera. “I was always hungry for more than just dance,” Ball said. “It’s a great way to meet people and see other worlds.”
Ball continued to succeed, and soon he was part of New York City Ballet’s ensemble of dancers, leaping across the stage in a variety of roles.
“I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but when I saw him dance on the State Theater stage (at Lincoln Center), I would not say it was anti-climactic, it was more like, “Yes! Finally!” — what a long flipping hike!” his mother wrote.
Ball said it’s a lot of constant hard work, long hours nearly every day. The company has about 430 different ballets in its repertoire and a longstanding reputation for innovation and collaboration. It’s always working on new stuff, Ball said.
He can spend 12 hours a day dancing, beginning at 10:30 with simple moves, then a rehearsal at 11:30 a.m. that can last until early evening, then a performance. So he must pace himself and minimize the chance of injury.
He’s danced in 14 principal roles so far, and at 22, he’s peeking physically. But a dancer’s career is measured in dog years. Often by 30, a professional ballet dancer has transitioned from the stage to the studio or classroom — or somewhere else entirely.
And Ball is already thinking about next steps. He’s involved in the “Happyokay” arts collective, which began as an “art happening” that combined ballet, deconstructed classical music, soundscapes and interactive video. Ball was one of the four dancers.
The first performance, which ran three hours and was filmed before a live audience, resulted in an intriguing video and determination among collaborators to do more. Since then, Ball signed on as an advisory board member and has worked on securing more performances, he said.
He hasn’t performed in Charleston since he left town, he said. He’s got some mixed feeling about his homecoming. “I’m expecting a full-circle feeling,” which will be humbling, he said. “Part of me is feeling spiteful — Ha! I did it. Another part of me is, like, this is great. I can help bring quality, large-scale dance to my home town, show Charleston that there’s this really rich world of art, so much material, so much to know.”
© 2016, The Post and Courier