Nomade, Barbican, London

Like Cirque du Soleil. Only scruffier and more rebellious
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Like fur coats and for much the same reason, old-style circuses with performing animals were pronounced un-PC some time ago - although a gentle backlash is already in place, with Nelly and her four-legged friends making (well-groomed, animal rights-aware) come-backs in retro outfits like the UK's Giffords Circus.

Still, New Circus, all bright and shiny and eager to please, is ever-popular, with Quebecois troupe Cirque du Soleil widely considered the top dog in the big-top arena.

Cirque Eloize, also from Quebec, is like Soleil's scruffier, rebellious younger brother - these guys have got the moves but they're not going to get too serious about it. Hey, it's only circus!

Well that's how it used to be, at least. For their latest show, Nomade, the artistic director is in danger of winding up in Pseud's Corner. "How do we conceive beauty?" Jeannot Painchaud begins his "Mot" in the company's over-inflated (ego- and price-wise) programme which features platitudinous comments from not one but two Prime Ministers (Canada's and Quebec's, since you ask).

Thankfully, Nomade's 18-strong cast treat the show's theme of wandering souls and life's ceaseless journey with a little more levity; and director Daniele Finzi Pasca allows the images to speak for themselves. Wise move, as Cirque Eloize know a thing or two about imagery. Not content with a man doing the splits mid-air, suspended by just his ankles, they frame him with a large, sultry moon and a chorus of moody gypsy singers. As he goes into a tailspin, his feet become entangled in billowy white parachute silk and kick-start a tornado. It's the little details - rather than the big-top staples - that catch the eye. Another man whizzes up and down a Chinese pole, pausing to hold himself horizontal, a single forearm keeping the whole body rigid as a mast; a woman bathes herself with a foot, a sponge and some yogic contortions; and a couple use each other as climbing frames while cascading water gradually soaks them through - threatening, though never succeeding, to loosen their grips.

They're not as slick as Cirque du Soleil - where a dropped baton would probably result in a night suspended from the highest trapeze by the offending acrobat's ear - and mistakes are brushed over with a knowing smile. There are the obligatory clowns for the kids (standard slapstick stuff, apart from a funny scene in which the two fools end up playing their instruments behind each other's backs), and some playful, erotic acrobatics for the rest of us.

So why does your attention wander? Perhaps it's the lack of a driving narrative. Nomade has all the trappings of theatre - the nocturnal dreamscapes suggest a mood and setting and there's proper acting going on here - and so you find yourself hankering after a plot. There are hints of a story - various brides keep wafting across the stage, performers fall in and out of love, and the show culminates in a rumbustious wedding ceremony, with the guests flick-flacking along the banqueting table. But the show is essentially episodic, with nothing threading the pieces together.

The other problem is, when you've seen one man riding a monocycle, only a man juggling tigers upside down on a monocycle will impress second time round. In other words, it's very easy to forget the skill and daring involved - the death of a British trapeze artist a couple of weeks ago is one of the sad ways we are reminded.

But that's where the unjaded little people come in: the kids seemed suitably bowled over by it all. And everyone was seduced by the spectacle which opened the second half: a beautiful woman soars through the air on a trapeze, at first only visible in glimpses as she dips and rises above the widescreen-shaped stage. The mic picks up her effortful breaths as she launches into a higher sweep, the genuine sound effects rendering an old-hat circus trick exciting once more. And funny. "Look at the poob-leek" she sweetly berates herself as she flies in full splits from one wing to the other.

"This is only a circus show", the programme notes declare in a rare fit of modesty. There's no arguing with that. Except that, taken on those terms alone, it's a particularly charming one.

'Nomade': Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7527), to Sat