Cecilia Bengolea crabwalking in a flesh-colored bodysuit and red stiletto heels. François Chaignaud, in a feather headpiece, fake plastic breasts, and very little else, presenting the ancient Greek athlete as a Playboy pinup. Marlene Monteiro Freitas, in black gloves, tights, boots, and nothing else, tying her hair into a babushka and playing Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp-minor Prelude. And Trajal Harrell, in ordinary street clothes, being Trajal Harrell. Those were the creators and performers of “(M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (M)” Thursday at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Not your ordinary dance evening.
It all started with Harrell’s question, “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform at the Judson Church with the early postmodern choreographers?” His answer is the multi-part work “Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church,” which so far has appeared in sizes XS, S, M, M2M (for “made to measure”), and L. Harrell brought the solo S version to the ICA in 2010; he debuted XS and M in 2011 and M2M (in which the Judson dancers go uptown to Harlem) and L (a riff on Sophocles’s “Antigone”) last year.
What he’s actually answering is Judson choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 “No Manifesto” — which says no to spectacle and glamour and the star image — with a resounding “Yes.” The title of his enterprise draws on Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” in which members of the Harlem drag-ball subculture walk the runway and explain their desire to be someone. As ball legend Dorian Corey puts it, “In a ballroom, you can be anything you want.”
In “(M)imosa,” the person Bengolea, Chaignaud, Freitas, and Harrell want to be is Mimosa Ferrera. Who, you ask? Well, that’s the point: There is no such person, or rather, there are four of her, but they don’t come into focus in the course of this intermissionless two-hour show. The performers tell their (true or false?) life stories. They “shade” each other’s acts: During Chaignaud’s performance of the Offenbach aria “Dites-lui,” the theme from “Mahogany” breaks out, and Chaignaud frequently disrupts the proceedings by fumbling about in the audience or playing the harmonica. At one point, Harrell falls asleep onstage.
There’s an extended ultraviolet sequence in which all four performers strut and shimmy, but the best comes last: Harrell poignant in Adele’s “Someone Like You”; Bengolea parodying Kate Bush in the red-dress video for “Wuthering Heights”; a moustached Freitas channeling Prince in “Darling Nikki”; and Chaignaud making a statement of Edward Maya’s “This Is My Life.” “(M)imosa” is a little long and a little obvious, but there’s no questioning the talent level. You could, however, ask why the audience doesn’t get to vote on who’s the real Mimosa.