extremely close grand rapids ballet michigan

Connie Flachs as Ellida Wangel in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House. Photo by James Sofranko.

By company dancer Connie Flachs

We continue our series of introductions to the famously strong female characters of playwright Henrik Ibsen that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.

Here we are introduced to Ellida Wangel from his 1888 five-act play, Lady from the Sea.

Lady From The Sea diverges slightly from Ibsen’s general attachment to realism, including some folklore and fantasy. Indeed, the story is based on the same tale Hans Christian Anderson derived The Little Mermaid from. The text explores craving and desire and the battle between ego and self in reconciling what one has with what one wants. Unlike many of the women we will meet who leave their husbands, turn away from convention, or regret their lifelong devotion to society’s norms, the free spirit of Ellida eventually chooses to remain with her kind and honest husband, Dr. Wangel.

You are greeted at the Wangel residence with streaming rays of sun and the warm air of summer. You’ve rarely visited in the past: There isn’t much to do here in this small town but admire the flowers that dot the hills.

“We are so glad you’ve come!” Dr. Wangel greets you, welcoming and earnest as always. “Ellida (played by company dancer Connie Flachs) has really been in a terrible state as of late. I hope an old friend can bring my wife back to high spirits. She’ll be right along, she’s just nearly finished her daily bathing.”

Sure enough, a few minutes pass and Ellida wanders up the hill, her hair drying in the breeze, still damp from her ritual swim in the inlet.

You’ve always been a bit jealous of Ellida. Most call her strange, wild even, especially in this provincial area. Yet, you envy the aura of mystery she carries with her and her freedom of spirit.

“Ellida, my dear. It’s lovely to see you, and on such a beautiful day!”

“Lovely. Nothing has seemed lovely to me for a while now.” Her eyes drift over the garden gate, out to the ocean.

You’re a bit taken aback, but the Doctor had warned you she’d been suffering as of late.

“What has been bothering you?” You ask tentatively.

“I am tormented. Oh, my dear friend, it’s terrible! There is so little to keep me busy here in this stifling town. I long for the sea and for that strange, American sailor (played by company dancer Matt Wenckowski) I met long ago. Do you remember how I spoke of him? I told you of our romance right after it occurred. A passion like I had never know, flowing and crashing like the waves of the ocean.”

“But why does it torment you so? I see it as romantic, the young love of two free spirits-”

“You do not understand.” Ellida says, standing and pacing the garden restlessly. “I have no desire to think of this man. I want him out of my mind. I have a wonderful, devoted husband here and duties to his girls. But the obsession infests me, worms its way inside not just my brain but my body.”

“What can you possibly mean by that? Ellida, you’ve always been known to speak of things more intensely than most, but no memory can alter one’s physical being!”

“My son. My son that I lost so quickly. The son of Dr. Wangel and myself. He had… He had…” She swallows hard, composing herself. “He had the stranger’s eyes.”

You feel any envy of Ellida’s mystique receding, leaving with the tide. Instead, a true picture of her torment emerges, just like the boat cutting through the fog on the horizon.

“It’s him!” Ellida screams, noticing the boat. “The sailor is on that ship, I’m sure of it.”

“What—what will you do?” You ask, at a loss.

“I must speak to Dr. Wangel at once. I must talk with the stranger free from any obligations. I know I want to stay here. All of my logic tells me I should. Staying is convenient, sensible, right. But my body has a terrible attraction towards the sea… And I cannot choose freely between the two if I am anchored still to the doctor.”

She exits in a frenzy. You are left to sit with your own struggle between reason and feeling. Because of course, Ellida is mad. That sailor could not have given his eyes to her son. And she would be crazy to throw away the security of her life on this island to be with a man she knows only from memory. But, more deeply, below the logical rationalizing of your brain, you feel how she yearns for freedom to speak with this stranger. Ellida, when you were close to her in your youth, was never one to avoid the ocean on the days when the water was choppy. She would test the water for herself. Here, in her safe, secure life, she has been landlocked. The Doctor must unmoor her if he can ever hope for her to float back to choose a life on dry land.

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