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I first saw Mikhail Calliste perform at Spectrum Dance Theater’s WOKENESS festival in April 2019 and distinctly remember falling entranced by his magnetic energy. I watched him the entire night, my attention like one of those pennies spiraling down a coin funnel, pulled to the center by a mighty force.

Mikhail Calliste. Photo by Jen Au.

“In the midst of a performance, how can you just be no matter what?” Calliste supposes when I ask him how he has such an all-encompassing stage presence. “I enjoy the silence. Dancing is my silence. It’s my own world and I’m inviting people into that.” 

Calliste’s world is rich with experience and talent. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Calliste migrated to New York City when he was about 9 or 10, training at the Martha Graham School and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As a dancer, working for a lot of different people has led Calliste to experiencing “a lot of different vessels of [himself].” 

In 2018, he joined Spectrum Dance Theater, working under Donald Byrd, an experience that Calliste describes as “liberating, brightening, unapologetic, and bold.” Dancing with Byrd has helped Calliste even “understand what it is to be.”

Though his experiences with Spectrum seem wonderfully expansive, emotionally fulfilling, and affectionately grounding (even his roommate, Michelle Dooly, is a fellow Spectrum dancer), Calliste’s time in Seattle has been otherwise. “There are many beautiful things about Seattle, but being a Black person existing in Seattle is difficult,” like living in a “twilight zone.” 

“As a Black person, I make people feel uncomfortable. I’m most always a trigger to people,” Calliste expresses. Dancing, and particularly dancing with Spectrum, gives Calliste space to explore these and other social injustices, as well as complicate the dehumanizing perceptions many White people in Seattle hold. 

Performing displays “different aspects of you,” Calliste explains. “I can be the character and the individual. I never want to lose sight of the individual within the work.” Calliste’s individuality was recently spotlighted in Spectrum’s Lyric Suite, which explores the mental and emotional effects of extended isolation told through 14 solos. A special encore presentation of Lyric Suite runs this weekend only, November 20-22. You can also catch Calliste in Spectrum’s next project, The Harlem Nutcracker, running December 11-13, which chronicles the Black struggle for justice and equality from the 1920s to the death of George Floyd. Tickets here.

Calliste’s talent is only topped by his immutable work ethic. When I ask what he perceives his strengths to be, he pauses thoughtfully, “Can I get back to you on that?” When I ask about his weaknesses, he jumps right in, “Everything! I’m always a student.”