"Because of the length of the program," began a boldface note in last night's playbill for American Ballet Theatre's 40th Anniversary Gala at the Kennedy Center Opera House, "each artist will take only one bow."

Fat chance. Asking an audience that has shelled out like $30 a throw for the express privilege of going hysterical over their favorite ballet tricks and tricksters -- asking such an audience, I say, to curb its enthusiasm has about as much hope of success as asking Ayatollah Khomeini for a nice big smile.

Sure enough, all it took were some eye-popping jumps, beats and splits by Fernando Bujones in the "Corsaire" pas de deux, fourth on the evening's marathon list of 14 display numbers, to send the rule down the chute. After a token delay, Bujones and his partner. Yoko Ichino, were brought forth for a second round of bravos and applause, and thereafter it was gala business as usual.

The fact is that whether you pronounce it "gayla" or "gahla" (Webster permits both, you'll be happy to know -- that way everybody's correct), these little balletic bacchanals impose their own codes and observances. At some point or other, stars must be pelted with flowers. Foulettes and double cabrioles must be applauded on the instant, however well or ill executed. And the program's got to be fast and punchy. On this particular occasion, a few somewhat subdued pieces were interpolated here and there for what one might call "tragic relief," but it was no surprise when they didn't go over as well as the other things. Let's face it -- crowds don't flock to galas in quest of angst or Weltschmerz.

They want razzle-dazzle, and razzle-dazzle's what they got last night. A program insert informed us that due to injuries, neither Alexander Godunov nor Kirk Peterson could appear. They were missed, to be sure, but then it wouldn't have been a gala without some last-minute accident or substitution.

Aside from the aforementioned "Corsaire," in which Bujones put in his first appearance of the season, the items the audience took most to heart for obvious good reasons included a "Grand Tarantella" by Walter Burke, a fluffy Balanchine look-alike that gave Marianna Tcherkassky and Danilo Radojevic a chance to show off their speed, agility and charm; an excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon," instant schmaltz most disarmingly rendered by Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell; "Top Hat and Tails," a slickly facetious duet for Dowell and guest artist John Curry, the ice-skater, choreographed by Peter Gennaro to Irving Berlin's music; and the inevitable "Don Quixote" pas de deux, thrillingly danced by Makarova and Bujones.

Also worthy of note were the Bournonville "Flower Festival at Genzano" pas de deux, much enhanced by Rebecca Wright's elfin piquancy and Warren Conover's understated but stylistically impeccable virtuosity; Wright's whiplash intensity in the "Vortex" section of Ailey's "The River"; and passage from "Les Sylphides" and "Theme and Variations" as flattering to the ensemble as to the able soloists.

Lost in the shuffle, somehow, was the purported rationale for these proceedings -- the company's 40th anniversary. But then, galas nowadays happen so frequently and have such a factory-assembled look that they've lost their sense of occasion. A gala ought, by definition, to be something special, but how special can they remain when you do them by formula and at the drop of every hat.