DP FICTION #112A: “This Week in Clinical Dance: Urgent Care at the Hastings Center” by Lauren Ring

edited by David Steffen

Brigitte Cole presents with lower abdominal pain, nausea, and a long-sleeved black leotard. She has a well-developed appearance and does not seem to be in acute distress. Her accompaniment for the evening is pianist Roy Weiss, a fixture of the local music scene whose minimalist style pairs well with the bold choreography of clinical dance. As the house lights dim and the spotlights focus down on Cole, stoic and poised, one cannot help but notice that a stray lock of hair has fallen out of her sleek bun. Such composure, such strength, and yet—disarray.

This masterful lighting design continues as Cole glides into the first movements of her performance, commanding attention as she twirls and leaps across the empty stage. She dances alone, backlit, at times little more than a silhouette. Bright piano notes flow along with her in synchronized elegance. The crowded lobby, with its crush of open-call auditioners and ticket-waving late arrivals, feels distant now. All eyes are on Cole.

Despite her ability to match the ever-increasing tempo of Weiss’s piano, it is clear that Cole favors narrative over technical skill. Her hair escapes its pinned style in huge clumps, and her back arches much too far with each arabesque, eliciting winces aplenty from the murmuring audience. Her movements slow as the music accelerates. She clutches her stomach.

The show must go on, so stagehands rush out props for her to lean upon: a velvet settee, a polished cane, a cushioned bed. Cole flutters between them as she dances. As she attempts once more to keep time with the piano, her movements become graceless, raw. She spares no energy for artistry as she returns to her initial speed, then surpasses it, practically throwing herself into a frenzied series of pirouettes. She spins, and spins, and—yes—even collapses in a heap, just before the crescendo of the piano.

Cole’s separation from the musical score after such sustained harmony is a compelling touch, reminiscent of the visible brushstrokes favored by the painters of antiquity. She reminds the audience that there can be no dance without its dancer.

Silence falls, but the curtain does not. Instead, the spotlight swings across Cole, its smooth motion a comforting contrast to the performer’s staccato tremors. She convulses beneath the sterile light. Some of the medical students seated in the spray zone have begun to yawn, but Cole successfully recaptures their attention with a bout of ragged coughing that leaves blotches of sputum on their clipboards.

An upbeat piano melody masks any sound from the stage. Cole coughs for several beats more, then lies still. When the spotlight tilts to highlight the frothy spittle pooling at her chin, those closest to the stage recoil, myself included: while the consumptive technique has received high praise in clinical opera, it is successful only when performed with delicate drops of blood. Cole’s spittle is indicative of nothing more than overexertion, perhaps due to a lack of consistent exercise, and falls closer to desperation than artistry.

She rises with the slow swell of the music and curtsies, her face frozen in a pained rictus that approximates a grateful smile.

Most of the audience applauds despite Cole’s fumbled ending, but their enthusiasm quickly fades and the curtain drops. The doctors in the box seats flip through their programs for the next performer’s chart. When the stagehands emerge with their carts full of antiseptic sprays, doctors and season ticket holders alike are all ushered out to the lobby of the Hastings Center for a brief disinfectant intermission. This process will repeat after each of tonight’s five performances, and though the stagehands are efficient in their duties, some medical professionals can already be seen checking their watches.

Later that evening, after several emotionally moving but technically flawed orthopedic ballets, a select few patrons are treated to another glimpse of Cole in top form. She stands alone, listless, little more than a shadow on the city sidewalk. Her shoulders slump. She takes three careful steps toward the bus stop, then suddenly, silently crumples to the ground.

Cole writhes, clutching her lower right side. Her mouth gapes in a silent scream. Despite the violence of her contortions, she never breaks from her fetal posture. Such purity of form, such scalpel-sharp restraint of motion, is the gold standard of clinical dance. If she can bring this level of passion and intensity to her upcoming performance, then Cole certainly stands a chance of admission to the inpatient stage.

Overall, though Brigitte Cole paints a compelling picture of a suffering artist, fighting through pain to hone her craft, the overly polished styling of her costume and the obvious exaggeration of her coughing fit trouble the audience’s belief in the depth of her struggle. Although her sidewalk encore shows potential, diagnostic scoring is strictly objective and must be limited to symptoms observed on the stage. Her preliminary scores and backstage bloodwork all fell solidly in the normal range. Without distinction or catastrophe during her main performance, encore or not, it is unlikely that her case will be reviewed for expedited treatment.

Only a medical professional from the Hastings Center can levy the final judgment, of course, but this reviewer predicts a rating of at least six out of ten on the Wong-Baker scale. Cole could not be reached for comment. Her follow-up performance will take place three months from now at the Mercy East Operating Theatre, and tickets are anticipated to sell out during presale.


© 2024 by Lauren Ring

906 words

Author’s Note: This story draws upon my own experiences as a disabled woman navigating the US healthcare system.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. She is a World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula finalist, and her short fiction can be found in venues such as F&SF, Nature’s Futures section, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is most likely working on a digital painting or attending to the many needs of her cat, Moomin. You can keep up with her at laurenmring.com or on Twitter @ringwrites.


If you enjoyed the story you might want to read Lauren Ring’s previous stories with Diabolical Plots: “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan”, or her stories we have reprinted in the Long List Anthology series: “Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise” in Volume 7, and “(emet)” in Volume 8. You might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

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