Why has it been so long since the two best known dancers in the world shared a stage?

"We've been busy," shrugged Mikhail Baryshnikov.

"It finally should happen," added Rudolph Nureyev. "After all, we are pupils of the same teacher" -- in Leningrad, where both studied before joining the Kirov Ballet and, eventually, defecting to the West. "We even shared the same lodgings, slept on the same couch. Played the same piano. Finally we'll have to hold each other's hands on stage and dance."

Nureyev, dance director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and Baryshnikov, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, were sharing a podium at the Metropolitan Opera House to confirm that their companies would perform together at a special gala at the Met July 8.

Not only will the two stars choreograph part of the program together (the target is the third act of "Raymonda," which both have choreographed separately), but they will also dance together for the first time in no-one-quite-remembers-how-long.

The last such occasion was a Paul Taylor ballet, perhaps a decade ago. "We had a great time together," said Baryshnikov, 38.

"It's time for some more," added Nureyev, 48, and still possessed of the cheekbones that won the West.

As for the question of which ballet would be so honored, "we are working on that," said Baryshnikov. As part of their preparation, he added, "we took class together yesterday. I gave up after 20 minutes."

Gala organizers expect the participation of "Misha" and "Rudi" to help raise half a million dollars for both companies and the Met. Certainly the chance to ogle the duo, even stationary, drew more camera crews (five), reporters and photographers than normally pay attention to dance programs.

Baryshnikov, wearing a plain royal blue shirt and sipping from a styrofoam cup, looked and sounded low-key.

"What would it be like to dance together again?" one reporter called out.

"Something like that," answered Baryshnikov, making a little dip behind the lectern.

But Nureyev -- who had dressed for the occasion in plaid corduroy pants, an enormous hand-quilted vest and his signature black cap -- was more expansive, and he seemed to relish the flashbulbs. He likes to point out that he is a Tartar and, therefore, more fiery and passionate than mere Russians.

He dismissed questions about the televised attack on his three-year tenure in Paris by guest choreographer Maurice Be'jart last week. "The whole incident was like April Fool's Day, one week premature," Nureyev said airily. And though Be'jart had called the dance director a liar and demanded he resign, the president of the Paris Opera took this occasion to reaffirm his support of Nureyev. "He will be our director as long as he wants to stay in France and to stay with the company," said Andre Larquie', without mentioning Be'jart or his charges. "Everything is perfect, I would say."

The gala, which marks the Paris Opera's first New York appearance in almost 40 years, will also feature members of the ABT in "Push Comes to Shove" -- to which its choreographer, Twyla Tharp, will add "a special fillip" -- and an adaptation of Gene Kelly's choreography for the ballet sequence in the l951 film "An American in Paris." Kelly and his costar, Leslie Caron, have been invited to introduce the ballet. The program, still being determined, will also include a dance piece staged by Baryshnikov and set to a song by the French chanteuse Barbara, who will be making her Met debut.

The evening will mark the end of the ABT's season at the Met and the start of a two-week engagement there for the Paris Opera Ballet. On July 22, the latter will move on to Washington for a week at the Kennedy Center.

It's coincidental that the gala will follow on the heels of the centennial celebration for that other symbol of French-American alliance, the Statue of Liberty, but Larquie' pronounced it "a happy coincidence."

"It should be a joyful evening," Nureyev agreed.