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Huntington native finds her grounding performing in the air

WANT TO GO?

"All Grown Up: A Benefit Concert"

WHERE: Keith-Albee Theater, 925 Fourth Ave., Huntington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TICKETS: Adults $15, students and seniors $10 through Ticketmaster

INFO: www.firststagetheatre.org

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There are several ways to gauge how tough and determined Mary Wolfe-Nielsen is.

You might consider how the 26-year-old Huntington native keeps her body strength up by routinely pulling herself up and down ropes just by her arms -- while her legs are held straight out to the side.

Or how she taught herself high-flying aerial silk acrobatics, a la Cirque du Soleil, via YouTube videos. Or maybe it's how she began flinging herself off high fake cliffs in order to get a job in an indoor "cliff-diving show" in Utah.

But maybe the truest picture of her grit is how she quickly got her life back on track after nearly destroying her right foot when she missed a stunt dive and landed on pavement in July 2010.

"I had surgery in Huntington. I think it was eight hours," she said in a phone interview in advance of a homecoming performance Saturday at the Keith-Albee Theater.

Surgeons, including Zack Tankersley at the Marshall University of Medicine, rebuilt her foot with a jigsaw puzzle of screws and pins. Twenty days later, on crutches, she boarded a plane to return to her job as a cliff diver at a Mayan Adventure show in Sandy, Utah.

The trouble was, though, that her foot injury meant diving was out of the question.

"I just managed and directed the cliff-diving show in Utah. I still needed to perform, so that's when I started training to do all the aerial stuff. We added aerial at the cliff-diving show."

If you've seen a Cirque du Soleil show, you've seen the relatively new art of aerial silk acrobatics. Performers wrap hanging folds of colorful silk strands hung from ceiling rigging around themselves, then climb, soar, glide, tumble down and hang by various body parts.

Aerial silk gave Wolfe-Nielsen back her performing career. But she warns against learning the art in the fashion she learned it, from online videos with friends spotting her when she tried out moves. She took the precaution of training over water.

"So I could hook myself up to a beam that was like 40 feet above me and there would be water below me," she said.

She is now confident enough in her skill to perform over hard surfaces, but only if she is dead certain she knows the moves, she said. "I don't do anything over the ground if I haven't done it hundreds of times before."

She will perform in Huntington along with her husband, Tyce Nielsen, a trapeze artist, acrobat and high-dive artist she met at the Utah show. He recently successfully auditioned for a spot in a Cirque du Soleil troupe, she said.

"He made it through all the auditions and is now waiting for a spot to open up."

Whether she is able to do an aerial silk routine inside the historic Keith-Albee Theater depends on whether the ceiling rigging can support it, she said. She keeps her weight at about 115 pounds, but when she does one of the roll-and-drop routines, caught by the silk at the end of the drop, the weight of the stress on the rigging can amount to more than 1,000 pounds.

"We have to look at the rigging," she said. "It has to be strong enough to hold that."

If the theater ceiling doesn't measure up, she and Nielsen will do "acro-dancing," a sort of acrobatic, double-body balancing and movement demonstration.

"And, of course, there's always singing," said Wolfe-Nielsen, whose roots are in theater and dance and who hopes to expand her professional life into acting.

The show Saturday, which starts at 7:30 p.m., is titled "All Grown Up" and is a benefit to raise money for the First Stage Theater Company, a 22-year-old children's theater troupe in Huntington that began life as the Musical Arts Guild-Children's Theater.

Wolfe-Nielsen and about 20 grown-up veterans of the theater group will perform to help the company raise money to transform a recently purchased downtown space into a rehearsal and performance space, said the group's president, Chuck Minsker.

While some of the group's veterans, like Wolfe-Nielsen, have gone on to entertainment careers, others have gone on to careers in medicine, journalism and other professions, carrying with them skills learned as young actors, said Minsker.

"What we always like to point out is that even though a small fraction of our kids go into the entertainment field, they learn teamwork, public speaking -- these are skills that will serve them well no matter what they go into."

As a young girl, Wolfe-Nielsen starred in the group's production of "Annie" and many other stage shows. She also was the prima ballerina at Huntington's Art Center School of Dance.

Her return to town will be the first time she'll perform there as an acrobat. The audience will include her father, Kim, Huntington's mayor, and her mother, Deborah, who won the 1984 Mrs. America crown.

Following in her mother's pageant footsteps, Wolfe-Nielsen -- wearing a foot cast from her injury -- landed in the top 15 at last year's Miss Utah USA pageant. In 2004, she was Miss West Virginia Teen USA.

Wolfe-Nielsen and her husband also will appear at a free reception with Mayor Wolfe from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday in the lobby of the Frederick Building, 940 Fourth Ave.

Her theatrical roots in Huntington have stood her in good stead out in the world, including stints as a stuntwoman and a five-month engagement along with her husband at the Cirque de la Mer show in San Diego.

"There's a lot of competition finding work," she said. "We've been able to completely support ourselves performing."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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