Kuperman brothers mix martial arts with dance in their Tony-nominated Broadway work

Canada's Kuperman brothers are trained dancers, but they tapped into their martial arts skills to choreograph key scenes in the Tony Award-nominated musical reimagining of "The Outsiders."

Rick and Jeff Kuperman's debut work on Broadway is up for best choreography at the 77th Tony Awards on Sunday.

The production, adapted from the classic 1967 S.E. Hinton novel and the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola film, is among the leading nominees with a total of 12 nods, including best direction and best musical.

"The Outsiders," a coming-of-age drama that follows the rivalry of two gangs in Tulsa, Okla., challenged the Kupermans to come up with authentic portrayals of violence on stage.

Both brothers have three-degree black belts in Kenpo, an American style of karate, which informed how they choreographed the climatic rumble between the feuding Greasers and Socs.

"We only really experience violence in our life in TV and film and the tools those mediums have to make that violence feel visceral and impactful are different than the suite of tools theatre-makers have," Rick Kuperman said in an interview from New York.

"I think the study of martial arts really unlocked for us a vocabulary that allows real force to be redirected on stage, as opposed to a kind of fake game of force."

The Kupermans grew up in the Toronto area, got their early dance training in Richmond Hill, Ont., and have been working together professionally for 13 years – typically on large projects such as A24’s movie “Dicks: The Musical” starring Nathan Lane and Megan Thee Stallion. The duo has also worked in television, directed music videos for artists such as Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, and choreographed works in Russia and China.

“I think why we gravitate toward large-scale productions like Broadway musicals or feature films is because ultimately they are the product of hundreds of people all working together,” Kuperman said.

The brothers discovered their passion for choreography while at university, he said, and were especially interested in how the art form could augment storytelling in dance and theatre.

“Practicing collaboration and an egoless approach to art making with a collaborator like your brother is a sort of a microcosm for the kinds of artistic environments you want to create when you’re leading large scale productions," he said.

Working on stage musicals can "feel a bit siloed" since the productions require many different skill sets, but that wasn't the case with "The Outsiders," Kuperman added.

“(It) was really a unified experience and I think that’s why the show is special at the end of the day," he said, expressing hope for an opportunity to bring the show to Toronto.

The Kuperman brothers are up against choreographers behind "Water for Elephants," "Hell's Kitchen," "Here Lies Love," and "Illinoise" in their Tony Award category.

Meanwhile, fellow Canadian nominee Rachel McAdams is vying for the best actress in a play trophy for her Broadway debut in "Mary Jane," which is also nominated for best play.

The Tony Awards bash, hosted by actress Ariana DeBose in New York City, airs Sunday night on CBS.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2024.

Alex Goudge, The Canadian Press