Harrison Ball’s Addiction, Rebellion and Success

I didn't know how to pace myself. I was wild. I didn't have an off button.

Harrison Ball in New York by Emily Assiran for Observer, June 2023. EMILY ASSIRAN

Harrison Ball is engaged to Zac Posen. If you already know this, it might be because you read one of many headlines last summer. 

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“There’s this assumption that my life is happening because of Zac,” Harrison tells me. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Zac since childhood; he’s a dear friend.) “It would be stupid to ignore the fact that being with Zac has made it easier to be seen, but you still have to pay your dues.”

Harrison began paying those dues at four, shortly after he fell in love with dance and theater. Through bullies, chronic injuries and addiction, he worked his way up (way up!). At 30, at the height of his career, Harrison retired from his role as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet—but that’s not a bad thing. He’s been sober for five years and feels lighter than ever. He’s choreographing (“seeing my brain outside my head”) and pursuing a second career in acting. He’s in love.

“I’ve got somebody who is extremely creative, has been extremely successful, and has overcome enormous challenges personally and professionally,” Harrison says of his fiancé. “That is such incredible, clean fuel for my spirit—and I don’t even think we’ve really started yet.”

First of all, congratulations on your retirement from New York City Ballet. How have you been?   

Thank you! I’ve been feeling really focused and kind of natural, almost like I’ve been waiting for this moment to settle into myself. It’s incredibly freeing. What I’m excited about with acting is that it’s transferable. That I have this enormous amount of bodily intelligence I can plug into acting, really looping in what I learned as a dancer, is thrilling.                                                                                                                                    

Your final performance was so moving. “Afternoon of a Faun” choreographed by Jerome Robbins just blew me away. Tell me about what you were experiencing.

The audience was packed. During intermission, I lay down on the stage and did some sensory work. You’re supposed to feel like it’s a hot summer’s day, and there’s sunlight hitting you. I let the warmth from the lights wash over me, and I just stayed there while the stagehands set up. I shut everyone out.

What’s the story behind “Afternoon of a Faun”? 

Two dancers in a studio simply cross paths. There’s yearning and it’s sexually charged. Then there’s separation; they end the way they started. It’s theatrical. 

You were four years old when you started ballet. How did that come about

When I was born I came out colicky, like just miserable and crying. And the one thing that always calmed me down was classical music on NPR or the opera broadcast on PBS. I would shut up and go into that world. 

Eventually, I started to express myself in performative ways at home. When I was four, my mom took me to three or four ballet studios and allowed me to pick the one that I wanted to go to, which ended up being a professional ballet company. The studio was in downtown Charleston, which was rough and edgy. To get there, you had to go down this alley behind a funeral parlor. There was a screen porch with all of these professional dancers wearing their garb smoking and looking fabulous. I remember smelling their breath and seeing their skin up close. You could see the makeup eating each crack, but I loved that. There was a sense of another world. And then we walked into a black box studio, which also functioned as a theater. There was a costume shop and dressing rooms with lights around the mirrors. It just felt like real theater. So I started taking ballet classes and pretty promptly, I was performing with that company. 

Harrison Ball in New York by Emily Assiran for Observer, June 2023. EMILY ASSIRAN

Getting into NYCB is a huge accomplishment. Who nurtured your talent?

Being one of two or three male dancers in Charleston allowed people to see me. It fed me, and I do think I have a natural ability. I did have moments when I wanted to stop because I was bullied. People in Charleston played football and hunted. Here I was in school with a feather fan and blue kimono. My parents let me do that because that’s how I wanted to express myself. I think my parents and the ballet community really tried to bolster me with confidence, and the bullying made me focus on dance even more.                                                                                                              

What were your teens like?

It was very difficult for me to discern if I wanted to dance or if I wanted to be young. I didn’t really enjoy the sacrifice of dance, and you’re doing it 12 hours a day. You go from being the protégé to being one of 120. It’s shocking, you know?

Harrison Ball in New York by Emily Assiran for Observer, June 2023. EMILY ASSIRAN

Do you think that your injuries and addiction sort of went hand in hand? 

I think they did. I didn’t know how to pace myself. So that, compounded with the fact that I was a young man growing up and drinking a ton—I didn’t know how to regulate my nervous system. I was wild. I never slept, chain-smoked, snorted coke. I didn’t have an off button.

Were you rebelling against something? 

My parents were in the middle of a divorce. I also think that I was being held to the level of an adult from a really young age. I was living on my own at fifteen, and there was no real leadership in regard to things like how you balance a checkbook.

In your recent New York Times profile I was struck by the moment you broke both your feet simply by walking into rehearsal. You then fell to the floor and laughed. What kind of laugh was that?  

Absurdity. It was a sarcastic laugh and a relief. My life wasn’t sustainable. I just knew right away that this was going to be something. 

And it was something big. You went to rehab and have been sober since.

I really threw myself into rehab. And what you find is that rehab has little to do with drinking and drugs. It’s all about healing. And you learn the crux of your issues is how you’ve learned to regulate your emotions. 

You mentioned that you want to bring more awareness to addiction and that it needs to be talked about. What message would you want to convey to someone who is struggling with it?

Get to a meeting or a support group. Human connection is the number one way to heal. Pleasure can be taken in healing. You have to change the way you look at things. You’re not losing something, you’re gaining something.

Tell me about your choreography.

I recently choreographed a twenty-minute piece for the New Jersey Ballet (Zac designed the costumes). Watching the performance was exhilarating. It’s cool for me to see my brain outside of my head. You don’t see yourself when you dance, and when you watch a video it’s not the same.  That dimensionality of the work—the air, the smell, the energy of the house—you need all of that.

I think the ephemeral nature of dance is part of what makes it so poignant.

I hate it—the temporariness. You wanna hold onto it. You want to bathe in that moment. Like when I kissed Unity on the cheek on stage in “Afternoon of a Faun” I could just live in that moment forever.

Harrison Ball in New York by Emily Assiran for Observer, June 2023. EMILY ASSIRAN

Do you keep mementos?

I have all kinds of knickknacks from the theater. I have a door wedge from the Kennedy Center. The other month I was at a party and Patti Smith dropped a guitar pick, and I took it off the ground and now it’s on my desk. It’s gonna be great for the acting work when I do personal objects.

How do you think your engagement to Zac will inform the next stage of your life?

I feel there’s this assumption that my life is happening because of Zac, and I think that it might be stupid to ignore the fact that being with Zac has made it easier to be seen by people. But you still have to pay your dues. I don’t get to just be an actor. I think Zac, however, has given me this surge of confidence that I’ve never had before because I’ve got somebody who is extremely creative, has been extremely successful, and has overcome enormous challenges personally and professionally. That is such incredible, clean fuel for my spirit—and I don’t even think we’ve really started yet.

What’s your definition of success? 

As a performer, there are times you rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and you get to the performance, and it does not equate to what you put in. And that’s really disappointing. I think that for me, success can be defined by what I put in. Because at the end of the day, I was a principal in New York City Ballet, and that is a huge feat for somebody in my career. It was a confrontational moment when I realized the credits don’t transfer in the real world. It made me redefine success. Even with acting, it’s about being in the room, it’s about working on the craft, and it’s about those small successes that make me feel accomplished.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Harrison Ball’s Addiction, Rebellion and Success