The first time I met Osnel Delgado it was a steamy day in December. I walked through the streets of Havana, Cuba with Linda Andrews, artistic director of Zenon, and another American dance friend, heading in the opposite direction of the famed Malecon. It was 2013 and our cell phones did not work there, so without GPS, we following the street signs: stones imprinted with street names, embedded in the rough sidewalks.
We arrived to a warm welcome from Fernando Saez, co-founder along with Osnel, of a young dance company. He explained that Osnel had been a dancer in one of Havana's premiere companies, Danza Contemporanea, and had recently left this coveted and respected position, a very good living in Cuba, to take a chance on establishing his own company. Many warned him that this was an ill-advised move, a misstep, a mal paso. So, what did he name his fledgling company? Malpaso.
Yet in a short year or two, Osnel (as choreographer) and Fernando (as administrator and collaborator) had successfully guided the into existence and to a handful of big opportunities. They had grabbed the attention of New York's Joyce Theater, who had invited Malpaso to perform in New York, and had commissioned a new work from Ronald K. Brown, who had in fact, hand-picked Malpaso from a number of Cuban companies.
I was in Cuba for a week, on a “people to people” trip organized by the American Composers Forum. This was well before relations between our countries were normalized (are they normal yet?) and it took a bit of paperwork to visit legally. As Program Director of the McKnight Choreographer Fellowship (at that time based at Northrop), I was in search of our next McKnight International Choreographer – a promising young choreographer we would invite to be in residence in the Twin Cities the following year. The plan was to bring one choreographer from Cuba to Minnesota. That person would teach classes, participate in dance community events, and create a new work for Zenon Dance. We had already visited and interviewed a few likely prospects and now we were at Osnel's rehearsal, considering him for the honored McKnight residency.
We watched Osnel lead the dancers through a warm-up, followed by a rehearsal of his choreography. The dancers were lovely, well-trained, and engaging, and Osnel's choreography showed great promise. When rehearsal was finished, we heard more about the company from Fernando, who gave us some idea what it took to run a non-government-sponsored company. Fundraising in Cuba, he said, was “science fiction.” We chatted with Osnel, told him about the McKnight opportunity, exchanged gifts (T-shirts and CDs), and promised to be in touch. I had a hunch that Osnel would fit the bill beautifully, so before leaving, I snapped a PR-worthy headshot of him against the white wall of the rehearsal studio.
To make a long story short, we did indeed select Osnel Delgado as the 2014 McKnight International Choreographer. He made two extended trips to Minnesota, the first in August for workshops, to meet and engage in the Twin Cities dance community, and to create a new work for Zenon. The second trip was just a few weeks later, in November, for the premiere of his new work, Coming Home.
Cuba has a vibrant dance scene, as does Minnesota. One reasons the McKnight International Choreographer Program exists is to foster connections between dance artists in Minnesota and in communities farther flung, to bring together artists who may not speak the same verbal language, but who have the common experience of expression through movement.
We hope that the ties we initiate continue beyond the McKnight residency, so imagine our delight at what has transpired since then: Zenon visited Havana in 2016, performing Osnel's work there, and now Northrop welcomes him back to Northrop, presenting his company on their mainstage on October 10 (and October 11 for a middle and high school matinee)! I'm delighted that Twin Cities audiences will once again be able to see Coming Home, the beautiful baseball-inspired work Osnel created during his McKnight residency, performed by our own local stars. Osnel's work seems aptly named, as we feel he will always have a home here and we welcome him back. No malpaso here!
Mary Ellen Childs is the Program Director for the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Dancers and Choreographers