In the previous decade we experienced a mania for the "all-star" ballet gala, one topping the next in extravagance, ballyhoo and razzle-dazzle. Over the past few years the vogue seems to have subsided--the "one time only" gambit becomes self-depleting beyond a point, because there are just so many socko combinations possible. But when you're out to raise money, as fund-raisers are quick to observe, there's nothing like a pyramid of "names" to attract both public attention and the desired lucre. Hence the genre isn't likely to disappear quickly.

The latest instance, billed as "A Diamond Night at the Ballet with Margot Fonteyn," and presented at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York Sunday evening, was as much of a circus as these things ever tend to be, despite one gloriously redeeming artistic component. In the midst of a New York dance season which has seen the Royal Danish Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company and the New York City Ballet's Stravinsky Festival running concurrently in the town's major theaters, the event seemed like a throwback to an era of innocent gaucherie--a smorgasbord of crowd-pleasers without regard for esthetic sense or propriety.

The crowd was delighted with its three hours of luminaries, and in that sense the production achieved its purpose. The cause was noble enough--proceeds were to benefit the Jacqueline du Pre Research Fund, named for the outstanding young cellist whose career has been tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis. Dame Margot, at 63, did not dance, but presided over the program looking radiantly youthful in her floor-length red taffeta. Before the performance, contributors in categories ranging from $150 to $10,000 (regular tickets ran from $10 to $75) were treated to a champagne reception and an exhibition of prize-winning diamond designs--hence the evening's moniker. No notables of the dance world and few celebrities from any realm were glimpsable among the throng.

The program proper included six premieres of varying rank (world, U.S. and New York), not a single one worth remembering. A couple of entries were embarrassingly, painfully bad--one, "Swingtime in the Rockies," featured the Marchioness of Londonderry (the former Doreen Wells, retired from the Royal Ballet in 1974) in a wretchedly inept high-heel tap number (among other deficiencies, the tapping was all but inaudible); the other, "Three for Two," paired Denise Jackson and Christian Holder in a stillborn pas de deux to Rachmaninoff, choreographed by Holder. In both cases, the "accompaniment"--Panama Francis and his band in the first, and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the second--outshone by far the terpsichorean material. Also seriously misconceived was a matching of the Royal Ballet's superb Anthony Dowell and Fosse protege Ann Reinking in an Astaire-style duet to Gershwin (choreographed by Gary Chryst)--the hard, brassy Reinking is the exact opposite of the yielding romantic partner of the old Astaire numbers, and on a whole different wavelength from the noble Dowell.

Dowell had his shot at the heavens though, and didn't waste it. In the evening's one almost incongruously sublime performance, Dowell and ballerina Antoinette Sibley resurrected the poignant magic of their once reigning Royal Ballet partnership, with the help of Frederick Ashton's Oberon-Titania duo from "The Dream"--surely one of the most exquisite expressions of romantic ardor ever created in any medium. Because a rehearsal injury to Peter Martins caused the cancellation of a scheduled "Corsaire" pas de deux, with Martins and Cynthia Gregory, the Dowell-Sibley gem, with its luminously sustained mixture of coquetry and passion, came last in the program, which was just as well since nothing else in the evening could have followed it without severe anticlimax.

This is not to say there wasn't a considerable amount of quite splendid dancing and theatrical savvy elsewhere, from the likes of Allegra Kent and Edward Villella, Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun, Jorge Dunn, Linda Hindberg and Arne Villumsen (of the Royal Danish Ballet), Leslie Browne and Robert La Fosse, and Washington's Amanda McKerrow and Simon Dow, as well as some fine work from such lesser known dancers as Ilka Doubek (an Oklahoman active in Europe) and Dennis Poole. But aside from a small sprinkling of classical showpieces, the bill of fare consisted mostly of lightweight novelties or saccharine schlock--the bulk of the choreographic diamonds turned out to be only shiny paste.