American Ballet Theatre's 40th birthday party may have been a few months late, but that didn't seem to bother either the audience or the dancers. Sunday night, New York's Metropolitan Opera House was packed with the curious, the socialties (Jacqueline Onassis and the New York arts elite), and loving fans (many from Washington) who paid up to $250 a ticket to watch ABT stars and legends present a retrospective of the company's history.

Past ABT galas have often resembled dancing school recitals, each star bringing his or her own showpiece, most of which have nothing to do with the company's repertory. This one, directed for the most part by Donald Saddler, was different.

To help celebrate the classic wing of the ABT's museum, the company arranged reunions of some of their great partnerships of the past. Alicia Alonso, deftly supported by Igor Youskevitch, delighted with her light, quick foot beats in an excerpt from the second act of "Giselle." Carla Fracci was a fragile, playful sylph to Erik Bruhn's useful, thoughtless James as the two resumed their famous partnership of a synopis of the second act of "La Sylphide." Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy, framed by the corps de ballet, danced a tender "White Swan" pas de deux from "Swan Lake."

Not strictly a famous ABT partnership, but Fracci also danced a condensed act two of "Giselle" with Rudolf Nureyev, and the artistry of the pair made one forget one was watching a Reader's Digest condensed version of the great ballet. The most charming moment of the evening came when Irina Baronova and Anton Dolin, in evening dress, reenacted the briefest of comic bits from Fokine's "Bluebeard."

Sometime ABT ballerina Cynthia Gregory (she's listed this season as a "guest artist") showed her steadfast balances in the Rose Adagio from "The Sleeping Beauty"; Eleanor D'Antuono brought Coppelia to life for Enrique Martinez's cunning Dr. Coppellius; and Gelsey Kirkland, in what may have been her only appearance of the season, danced the first-act pas de deux from "The Nutcracker" with Anthony Dowell as her gracious, generous prince.

One of the most touching surprises, of the evening came with a parade of nine of Ballet Theatre's great ladies, including Muriel Bentley, Melissa Hayden, Maria Karnilova and Violette Verdy. Former company stalwarts Nora Kaye and Jerome Robbins (who paid tribute to designer-director Oliver Smith) also appeared.

A surprise of a different nature came when Makarova proved to be the "mystery guest" who turned Dowell and John Curry's "Top Hat and Tails" duet into a trio.

It wouldn't be a gala without fireworks, and there were several showpiece pas de deux. Yoko Morishita and Fernando Bujones tore through Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky pas de deux."

Martine Van Hamel and Alexander Godunov drew Hearty cheers for their bravura performance of the "Corsaire" pas de deux. Alonso and Jorge Esguivel evoked the era of romantic ballet in a duet from "La Peri."

In a sense, the whole evening was as much a "Homage to Lucia" (Lucia Chase, the seemingly indomitable director of ABT for these 40 years, who will relinquish that post at the end of this season) as to her company. ABT's resident heroine Agnes de Mille extrolled Chase's accomplishments; 10 current soloists with the company formed a tableau, each costumed as one of Chase's dancing roles; and, in a grand finale, the stage was filled with dancers past and present who paid their own homage to the woman responsible for ABT's 40th birthday.