A prince to the end, dancer Ivan Nagy bade farewell last night to a career he filled with a plenitude of illumination and grace, and his leave-taking, as true as ever to the ideals he personified, was the very image of romantic gallantry.

The occasion was American Ballet Theatre's "special Evening for Ivan Nagy" at the Kennedy Center Opera House, on the eve of his retirement from the ballet stage at the age of 35, in his prime as an artist. Universally admired for his nobility of line and as the classical partner par excellence, Nagy danced in a program that matched him with four of the company's most illustrious ballerinas - Marianna Tcherkassky, Cynthia Gregory, Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland.

The ballet world, goodness knows, has its share of backbiting, spite and jealousy, but when it comes to honoring one of its own it really goes the limit. It would be hard to remember an ovation more thunderous or prolonged in the theater than the one Nagy was accorded last night. It was impossible not to be swept up in the emotion of it-it was tidal, torrential even.

After 20 minutes of shouting, stamping and pounding, amidst repeated barrages of tossed flowers, Nagy also got what was probably the fulfillment of a lifelong dream-he was hauled onto the stage for the umpteenth curtain call cradled horizontally in the arms of his four ballerinas, for once the supported and not the supporter. A bit earlier, he himself reversed the traditional "rose Adagio," embracing and kissing in turn each of the partners, and then ABT director Lucia Chase.

In choosing Washington for the site of his last performance, Nagy brought his career full circle. It was here that his international career was launched, as a principal dancer of the National Ballet for three glorious years, before going on to his decade with ABT. Frederic Franklin and Jean Riddell, who were responsible for bringing him to Washington, joined in the congratulations along with other National Ballet alumni at a private ABT party for Nagy after the performance, where Natalia Makarova was heard to say: "i know Hungarians are very stubborn, but please say you've changed your mind."

Perhaps the truest sign of the quality of Nagy the person and the artist was his willingness to end the evening in a ballet excerpt that showed him, not in triumphant bliss, but as a forlorn, broken figure who has unwittingly caused the death of the one he loves most.

This was Act II of "la Sylphide," with Nagy as James, a man who abandons his worldly sweetheart to pursue a beautiful illusion, the Sylphide (Gelsey Kirkland). She's also the illusion of beauty, and hence James is the Artist, who gives up all to chase the fancies of imagination. And in this arch-romantic ballet, his quest is doomed-the phantom he seeks dissolves in his arms at the very instant of possession. Must this not have been Nagy's own characteristically wry commentary on the paradoxes of an artist's life as he has know it?

In any case, in his dancing on this joyful-sad evening, Nagy could not have hoped to have acquitted himself more superbly than he did. Indeed, the picture he presented of stylistic refinement, virtuosic command and dramatic conviction made the meaning of the occasion all the more poignant. It's clear that the art of ballet dancing is losing one of its great contemporary exemplars.

As for the ballerinas, it may sound trite but they outdid themselves-Tcherkassky, all softness and limpidity in "bayadere"; Cynthia Gregory, never more womanly or intense, in "Concerto"; Makarova, suffused with a wrenching pathos in "swan Lake," Act II; and Kirkland, exquisitely ethereal in "la Sylphide."