SALT LAKE CITY — Duo Transcend wowed judges and fans on “America’s Got Talent” this season. They also scared them.
Mary Ellen Wolfe-Nielsen and Tyce Nielsen, who form the Salt Lake husband-and-wife trapeze act, performed high-flying flips and spins — sometimes doing so blindfolded — survived a terrifying fall toward a flame-covered floor and even threw roller skates into the mix during their routines this season. The Nielsens also made history, becoming the first trapeze act in the show’s history to reach the Top 10.
Although they didn’t walk away from the show with the big prize, the duo has already found success. The Nielsens, who have been married for seven years, are currently in the middle of a six-week run in the Cirque Paris show in Reno, Nevada. On Nov. 19, the trapeze act kicks off a Magical Cirque Christmas Tour that makes a hometown stop in Salt Lake City Dec. 29.
The duo recently caught up with the Deseret News about their journey on “America’s Got Talent.” This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: How did you two meet?
Tyce Nielsen: We met at a restaurant called The Mayan in Salt Lake City. If you’ve ever been to the Rainforest Cafe, imagine that but three times the size and with a huge rock cliff with a pool at the bottom of it. While people would eat their food, (we’d) dive off the cliff. We just put on a whole show. It was in our hometown, and neither Mary or I were divers, but we knew about the restaurant and they were searching for entertainment. So she went in to try out and they basically told her that if she would have the guts to jump off the cliff, they’d hire her. They basically told me that I wasn’t very good, but they could teach me to be good. An actual dive coach worked there and he taught us both how to do it.
DN: When did you form Duo Transcend?
TN: It started at The Mayan, and then the restaurant closed in 2011. So we had to make a choice: Keep performing or put the performing off and just get normal jobs. We really wanted to make the performing thing happen for us, so in 2012, we tried out for a show that’s in SeaWorld San Diego … and our hope was that if we could get hired to this show, maybe we could make performing our life.
They hired us for the show. It was a summer contract, but once the contract was over, the company came to us … and said they wanted to have a duo trapeze couple in the show. … We were still in the very early learning stages of it, but when they asked us if we could put together a routine …. it was everything to us, we wanted that position so bad. So basically from 2013 until now, that’s when Duo Transcend was born.
DN: Could you talk about your journey to get on “America’s Got Talent?”
TN: We thought about auditioning for “America’s Got Talent” for a number of years. It’s a huge platform for performers like us, and if you can make it through the rounds, it’s probably the largest stage that performers like us could ever get access to. The last few years, we didn’t feel like we were ready for it — we didn’t feel like we could bring our best show and so we put it off for a while.
But this year, we felt ready. … Our son Jaxx, we’d been trying to think of ways to give him the life that we want to give him, and we felt that auditioning for “America’s Got Talent” would give us the opportunity to get some exposure, to show the world the things that we can do and then potentially be able to have a very successful career in performing so that we could help Jaxx with college education and raising him. We didn’t want to have to be on the road all the time, leaving him behind because we didn’t have the money to bring him with us. We decided that “AGT” would be something that could give us stability so that we could raise our son the way we want to.
DN: Is it hard to have a career as a trapeze artist?
TN: We have a lot of friends that are performers and do similar things as us, and it is a struggle — it’s definitely a grind. It’s not easy to actually make a living doing what we do, but it is possible. … It just depends on how well you can get your name in the right people’s books. And so that was the goal, is if we did well on “AGT,” we knew for sure that the world would see us and that we’d be exposed to all the right people.
DN: How much time did you spend preparing for each round, and was it hard to come up with something to top what you did the week before?
TN: It was extremely difficult. The first two rounds, there was a little bit of space in-between. But once the three live rounds hit, we had about a week and a half between each round. … For an act like us, for how physically demanding the act is, that’s extremely short. So once we did our first live round, we had to already have plans for the next two rounds because if we didn’t, there’s no way we would've been able to be ready in time.
DN: Who was your favorite “AGT” judge and why?
TN: (Heidi Klum) has a very silly side to her which was so fun to see. … Simon (Cowell) has people that he likes and it’s very obvious. We happened to be two of the people that he liked, and so he was always so generous to us. We were able to have multiple conversations with him offstage. We gained a little bit more respect for Simon because he’s not just that crotchety judge that rips everybody apart. He takes a lot of thought into these shows and he’s just going to speak his mind and that’s all he’s doing. I think Heidi and Simon are probably our favorites.
DN: In your routine for the Judge Cuts round, Mary had a big fall. What was going through your mind when that happened?
TN: When we’re preparing for routines, it’s our goal to make the routine exciting, energetic and also to include danger. But the problem is, when we have a slip-up, it’s very different than when a singer has a slip-up or a comedian has a slip-up. The outcome is extremely different. The fall was something that was very unexpected.
It’s not easy to do what we do, and we had a huge mistake. And thankfully the judges, they saw it for what it was. They knew we were taking a risk. They knew that we don’t normally work with fire. They knew that we don’t normally work with me being blindfolded. They respected us a lot for that because we were showing them we were here to win the show. I mean, that’s why we came on the show: We wanted to win, we wanted to prove to them that we were willing to do what it takes to make it happen. And what was so awesome is they saw it for what it was. It was a risk — we took a chance. They all commended us for it. Every one of the judges were very appreciative for us taking that risk. It could’ve been something really awful for us, if the judges would've said terrible things, but they all saw it as a tremendous risk and they loved the routine. The whole routine went so well and then the very last trick is when it happened. Looking back on it, I don’t think we would change it because it kind of defined us. It let people know that what we do is not easy and that it takes a lot of dedication to do what we do.
DN: Mary, after you fell, you stood up and told the judges you'd like to redo the trick. What was going through your mind at that point?
Mary Ellen Wolfe-Nielsen: We practiced the trick so many times and caught it so many times that I felt like we needed to show that we could do it. When I fell, we have a safety mat, so when I hit, I wasn’t hurt at all. I got up and I let Tyce know that I was fine. … The judges, I think they wanted us to wait because it was something that we could bring to the next round, something that would prove that we could do it.
DN: The whole season, you two have been praised for your trust. How does your relationship make what you do even more meaningful, and how does it make your performance better?
MN: When people see us on the trapeze, they can tell we actually have a real connection. We’re not acting. There’s a lot of really good trapeze acts out there, they’re so good, but I think people can sense that they don’t have that real connection. And that’s actually why we get hired for lots of shows. … One word (people) use to describe us is “authentic.” So I think us being married, we’ve been together for a long time, people can sense that and it’s a very real thing.
DN: How often were you able to have your son Jaxx with you during the “AGT” process?
TN: We didn’t have him with us for the first audition round because we had spent that entire month traveling. That audition was particularly emotional for us because we hadn’t seen Jaxx for over a month and we had no idea how the audition would go. We had no idea if the judges would appreciate what we do. We didn’t want to look bad on TV, we didn’t want them to say bad things about us. We were so nervous about how it would go. … It was very nerve-wracking. But when we finished the routine and saw the crowd on their feet, being so appreciative of what we just did, and then having the judges, Simon specifically, he said that was the only act of its kind that he could see in the finals this year. That was a cool thing for us to hear.
It was really emotional because it kind of kick-started our hopes in making it all the way through the rounds. It gave us this drive and the confidence to know that we actually might be able to make it to the finals. So that was just a really emotional time for us and it was so cool to experience that amount of appreciation.
After the first (round), we were able to have Jaxx with us for the next four rounds, which was so cool. We have very supportive family, and so Mary’s mom and my mom were very helpful in coming up to L.A. each time to help with watching Jaxx. It was so great.
DN: On the show, you mentioned having a progressive eye condition called keratoconus. Was that condition one of the more challenging parts of being on the show?
TN: There were so many great things that happened to us during this whole “AGT” journey. I’ve been told my whole life by all the doctors I’ve seen about my eye condition that there’s nothing they can do to fix or correct my vision — that it’s a progressive disease and it’s going to get to the point where I go blind. … The only way to fix it is to get a cornea transplant, but you can’t get on the list to be donated a new cornea until your vision is so bad that they’re like, “OK, we can now put you on the list because you’re basically blind.” I’ve been told this my whole life. But when we went to L.A. for the “AGT” rounds, we heard of this doctor in Hollywood that deals with patients that have my same condition. I went and saw him, and he told me he does a procedure that could stop the progression of the disease. It wouldn’t make my eyesight any better, it would just stop it where it is — almost like it would freeze it. I was able to get that procedure done in between “AGT” rounds. It’s a low-risk procedure so the recovery time wasn’t long at all. My vision is still the same, but now I have this happy feeling of “I’m not going to go blind someday,” so that was incredible. This whole “AGT” thing has just been incredible.
My eyesight, because we’ve dealt with it since the beginning, we don’t look at that as something that sets us back. It’s not really a big challenge for us, so I think the biggest challenge was trying to create a routine that we felt so good about and not (being) afraid of doing it on live television. Just dealing with the nerves that come with doing a dangerous act like we do and doing it live on TV. … If we slip up doing the stuff we do, there’s a really good chance one of us is going to get hurt badly and it’s live on television. There’s no hiding that. So the biggest challenge was having the confidence in ourselves and battling the nerves.
DN: Mary, you threw in a final trick at the end of your last “AGT” performance that involved holding and then dropping Tyce. Did that take a lot of practice?
MN: We only had about a week to practice that, and we added that in just a few days before the show because we were trying to think of something unique we could do, something the judges hadn’t seen yet. Normally when you watch trapeze, you never see the girl hold the guy. I thought, “You know, it’d be cool if we could do this.” And we didn’t know if it would work because he’s a lot heavier than I am. But it worked out because I could hold him — but not for very long — so I thought, “Well, I guess I can just drop (him).” Because I had that fall during the Judge Cuts, we thought that people would either think it’s funny or they might think it had some deeper meaning to it.
DN: What are some of the opportunities you’ve received because of “AGT?”4 comments on this story
TN: The show we’re doing right now is a company we’ve wanted to work with for quite a few years. When our first audition episode aired, this company reached out to us right away. … They also offered us a contract right after this one, about a 7-week tour. So we were offered two contracts right away, right as “AGT” all began. And then as we kept climbing our way through the rounds, and now becoming “AGT” finalists, it’s been really amazing because we’ve had a lot of people reach out to us. … We’ve had a lot of companies reach out to us for (corporate) events. It’s actually turning into the dream that we initially wanted. It’s going that route already to where we’ve got a lot of stability that’s starting to come our way, and we’re able to get paid a lot better so that if we do travel, we can bring Jaxx with us. Going on “AGT” was probably the best decision we ever made.