Most artists invent themselves in some way, but Rudi Goblen has invented himself much more than most, leaping into the unknown each time, nailing his landing with talent, hard work and faith in himself.
He taught himself to break-dance at 13 and co-founded Miami’s top hip-hop dance crew. He tagged along with a friend to an audition, and ended up hurling himself into performance art and dance theater. Born in Nicaragua and homeless for a time as a young boy, he dropped out of high school but has taught at top arts schools and written his own erudite solo theater pieces.
Goblen will premiere the third and most ambitious of those works, PET, next weekend at the Miami Light Project. The result of three years of interviews, PET is framed as a “support group for the broken-hearted and serial monogamists,” with Goblen leading the search for love.
All those experiences help to make Goblen one of the most compelling figures in Miami’s contemporary live-arts scene. And he sees no contradiction between his self-made street past and his avant-garde theatrical present.
“You just have to do it,” says Goblen, 31. “I am a B-boy [hip-hop dancer], a dance theater artist, a writer, an emcee, a music maker — I am all those things. It’s not like now you’re doing theater, and now you’re breaking. People say ‘Oh he used to be a B-boy and now he does theater.’ That’s like saying, ‘He used to be Nicaraguan and now he lives in Miami.’ All those things will always be inside me.
“What I love about theater is it’s open to everything. I can do all the things I want to do and know how to do, and learn all the things that catch my attention.”
Goblen’s hunger to learn and confidence in his considerable talents have attracted a crucial series of mentors and supporters.
“Right from the start he was always willing to do things he’s never done before,” says Michael Yawney, an FIU theater professor and playwright who is directing PET and who met Goblen in an experimental dance theater workshop a decade ago. “You have this intense intellectual insight, but he’s not stuck in the groove that some people get pushed into in higher education. He thinks outside the box because he’s never been in the box.”
Goblen was just 3 years old when he left war-torn Nicaragua for Los Angeles with his mother, 9-year-old brother, grandmother and uncle. Less than a year later, the uncle threw the rest of the family out of the apartment they shared. He soon took back Goblen’s brother and grandmother, but the little boy and his mother were homeless for months.
“I remember standing outside with the two boxes of clothes we had,” Goblen says. “We slept around, in shelters, in people’s houses.”
His mother sold clothes and other items until she and his grandmother had saved enough for a one-bedroom apartment, where the family took turns sleeping in the only bed. By the time Goblen was ready for middle school, they had moved cross-country to Sweetwater, where his mother still lives.
“I was really young, and I don’t remember a lot,” he says, downplaying those difficult years. “It’s just something that happened and made our skin tougher. Yeah, there was some struggling, but that’s the essence of life.”
His mother is the hero of that struggle.
“My mom to this day doesn’t know English and has never worked for anyone but herself, and she raised two boys,” he says. “I’m nothing but proud of that. No matter how scared she was and how [awful] things looked, she kept going. It’s because of her I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
Goblen clearly has the same kind of determination. In 1994, inspired by a hip-hop video, he and a couple of friends scoured video stores for the groundbreaking films Beat Street and Wild Style, then spent hours in their bedrooms imitating, practicing and inventing. Goblen and his buddies became the Flipside Kings, key Miami movers in the rebirth of break-dancing as an underground international dance circuit.
By the late ’90s, Goblen’s group was traveling as far as New York and Japan, winning competitions as Miami’s top B-boy dance crew. Internet footage of the Kings still inspires aspiring B-boys from New Zealand, South Africa and Russia to email Goblen.
Administrators at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School objected to the absences caused by his frequent (and lucrative) travels, and he dropped out in the 11th grade. “I felt like school was impeding my progress,” he says, laughing ruefully.
Goblen grins with delight when he talks about break-dancing. “There’s nothing like being a B-boy — the outlet, the self-expression, the challenge. Ballerinas get excited when they do four pirouettes on their foot. We do five pirouettes on one hand upside down. It feels like you’re taking gravity by the balls. That you can bounce around on gravity and use it and play with it is truly empowering.”
His success as a self-taught virtuoso instilled confidence in Goblen, enabling him again and again to go out on a limb with something new, then work relentlessly to make it his own.
“I feel like hey, if I learned how to do this I can learn to do anything,” he says. “If I put the time and sweat and energy and work into anything else like I did into breaking, I will succeed.”
Teo Castellanos saw that confidence in 2003 when Goblen showed up for an audition for Scratch & Burn, Castellanos’ first group theater piece, produced by Miami Light Project. Goblen had come along to keep a friend company, but he ended up auditioning, wowing Castellanos with his dancing and an original spoken-word piece.
Castellanos led the 23-year-old dancer through an intense, 15-month process of study and creation. The two have remained close collaborators and friends, and Goblen calls Castellanos his father.
“He had natural talent — I didn’t have to spend hours and hours pulling it out of him,” says Castellanos, a longtime mentor and teacher in Miami’s theater and performance scene. But Goblen also stood out for his eagerness to learn. He fell in love with the surreal choreography of Pina Bausch, butoh dance classes and performance art. Reading and studying on his own, he acquired the kind of education that compatriots had gotten at places like New World School of the Arts.
“He was like ‘Hey, wait a minute, I like this world,’ and he just took it and ran,” Castellanos says. “It’s like when you want to jump off a cliff into water. At first you’re like ‘Oh my God.’ But after the first time you’re like ‘Let me do that again, that was incredible.’ ”
Working with Castellanos led Goblen to Octavio Campos, another influential Miami teacher and creator of performance art and dance theater, and months of experimental dance and acting workshops.
“He’s a very open soul, very giving and vulnerable,” says Campos, whom Goblen calls his gay father. “He’s like a broken hero who wants to save the world. I think he really feels the sword of his words can stop these personal wars we live with every day.”
The internal battles Goblen expressed in whirlwind spins and confrontational jabs as a B-boy took darker forms in this new arena — a torturously erotic wrestling match with Liony Garcia in Rosie Herrera’s Various Stages of Drowning, an agonized hallucination in Castellanos’ Fat Boy. In Campos’ 2007 Kitchen Monkey, Goblen so convincingly played the abusive partner of co-star Teresa Barcelo (his girlfriend at the time) that the director had to pull him back. “He was pouring out heavy [stuff], heavy emotions,” Campos says. “He was amazingly scary.”
Another complication for Goblen was that he became a father at 14. Along with his mother, the boy’s mother and her family, he raised his now-17-year-old son. And while he would never recommend parenthood to the high schoolers he sometimes teaches, he says he has no regrets.
“He is amazing,” Goblen says of his son, who enjoys painting and playing football. “I got to spend every day with my son when I wasn’t out of town, wake up with him, feed him breakfast, walk him to school. I was there for a lot of that because of the choices I made. Which I don’t regret at all.”
Goblen’s emotional life is rich fodder for his work. In his first solo piece, 2006’s Insanity Isn’t, he was an office worker emotionally and physically twisted by the stress of modern life. In 2010’s Fair Welling, he was suspended between life and death, musing on love’s meaning, and whether to keep living. His writing combines a sharp awareness of pop and hip-hop culture with a blunt, even startling emotional honesty that’s sometimes humorous, sometimes devastating.
Miami Light Project executive director Beth Boone, an avid supporter who has commissioned all three of Goblen’s solo pieces, took a chance on him after Scratch & Burn.
“I was impressed with how dedicated he was to learning, and I could tell he could tell good stories,” she says. “He’s been so successful in crafting pieces that live on outside Miami that we’ve been able to tour because they are universal enough to go outside here.”
Goblen now juggles hip-hop work (mostly teaching and judging competitions), commercial gigs on music videos and ads (Gloria Estefan, Puma, AT&T), performing and touring with Castellanos or Herrera and his own pieces, which have taken him to Europe and around the United States.
In PET, he explores the search for love as leader of a support group for serial monogamists, which is what he calls himself.
“People are constantly looking for the one, and when they find the one, they go, ‘This is it, this is amazing,’ and two years later they go, ‘Oh no, he or she broke my heart,’ ” he says. “And then they go on to the next one. It’s like you’re doing it to yourself, you keep breaking your own heart as you’re looking for this perfect thing.”
He set out to explore sex addiction, but as he interviewed people for material, they kept revealing a more profound motivation. “All the stories and lust just kept coming back to love and the lack of love,” he says. “Everybody needs to be loved, expects to be loved. It’s the almighty, the all-powerful.”
The audience will be part of the piece, sitting in a circle and invited to be part of the support group — a familiar set-up to Goblen from years of break-dancing at the center of a crowd.
“I like performing in the round,” he says. “It’s the same as a B-boy in a circle. I feel comfortable close to people. It’s more like ‘We’re all here together. You came to see me and we’re going to share.’ ”