There were studio mirrors in the apartment where Nickemil Concepcion grew up. “My mom would have these parties, and I would just sit and watch her dance,” he remembers. “She always had music on, and we kids — I have an older brother and a younger sister — would dance, too.” When there was an opportunity to attend a summer dance program, Concepcion told his mother, “I’ll go, but I’m not doing ballet.” But life has a way of intervening and “I was better at ballet than I was at tap and jazz,” he says. Public schools, including Ballet Tech, nurtured Concepcion’s natural talent, and his photo hangs in the hallway there, celebrating a career that began on Broadway in “Cinderella” when he was 11, just two years older than his younger son, who is in 4th grade at the Manhattan school. At 14, Concepcion was the lead in a short film called “Avenue X.” At 17, he left school — later earning his GED — to dance for six years with a company directed by renowned dancer and choreographer Eliot Feld, the co-founder of Ballet Tech. He then traveled the world as a principal dancer for 12 years with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. When asked what teachers and artistic directors saw in him, Concepcion reluctantly offers, “raw talent and a tendency to jump, to take the initiative to say, I don’t know if this is going to work but I’ll take a leap of faith and try.” Today, Concepcion takes leaps of faith with the New York City-based Ballets with a Twist.
I went to PS 16 in St. George on Staten Island. I did more acting than dance there. My 5th-grade teacher, Sonja Debs, had me paint murals for our plays, she had me speak at assemblies and she gave me good roles like the lead in “Rip Van Winkle.” I was outgoing, and Miss Debs put me on a pedestal.
That gave me confidence, it pushed me. More than anything, it was love. At that age — 10, 11 — when someone believed in me, I took it as love. I thought, “Wow, even though I’m not sure about this, I’ll leave it in your hands and say I’m able to do this.” She was great. She was so comforting.
The summer before 5th grade, in 1989, I attended a program in Manhattan called Broadway Dance. I was in tap and jazz with my peers, but I was a level up with the older dancers for ballet. My ballet teacher there recommended that I audition for another summer program at the New School of Ballet, Eliot Feld’s school. He went to every borough except Staten Island to audition students. I was the only one who tried out from Staten Island, and I got into the program for the summer after 5th grade. It was the start of a long relationship with Eliot.
I went into the 6th grade at IS 61 in West Brighton. Soon after, my sister Natalie and I were chosen to be in “Cinderella” on Broadway. It was amazing. For a season, we were the timekeepers, and we came out and told Cinderella the clock was about to strike 12.
In the middle of 6th grade, I transferred to the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) in Manhattan. Eliot’s students would do their academic work at PPAS, near Times Square, and then we would travel together by train to 890 Broadway for ballet at the New School, until they had the idea in 1995 to turn it into Ballet Tech and combine academics with dance. We were a family, we stuck together and protected each other, and I still connect with them.
Christine Sarry, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who just retired from Ballet Tech, was a big influence. Like Miss Debs, she put me on a pedestal. We had a dance called “Halftime,” and she gave me the solo roles. There were other dancers I thought were phenomenal, and I was so humbled to get these roles. For your parents to come see you on stage and you’re in the spotlight is the greatest feeling.
When someone believed in me and I knew it, I just trusted that this was a role for me. I didn’t contest it or ask why. I wanted the role as much as they wanted me to do it.
I have to give it to Eliot for teaching me life skills, things like being punctual and professional. He was a father figure for me, a disciplinarian. My dad left when I was young so I respected Eliot as if he were my dad. He told me once, “Nick, in school you get left back. In life, you get fired.”
Eliot saw my potential and wanted me in his company. I signed an apprenticeship with him in 1996, when I was only 17. There are so many ways my life could have gone a different way, the wrong way. But God’s been looking over me.
My whole life has been an audition, and it’s still an audition. I’m still trying to reinvent myself, always climbing up this infinite ladder.