Having just danced an impeccably tender and lyrical "Giselle," it was Amanda McKerrow's turn to stand back and watch as her colleagues put on an entirely different kind of show on the Metropolitan Opera House stage.

The curtain that closed on the ballet's final scene Thursday night also closed on McKerrow's 23-year career with American Ballet Theatre. It was a career that was set ablaze when she made jaws drop throughout the ballet world by winning a gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition back in 1981, when she was 17. A career that began with dance lessons in the cafeteria of her elementary school in Rockville and progressed to the Washington Ballet, to ABT and, through touring and guest-star invitations, to all the great stages of the world.

Clearly, it was a career that built a loving and loyal following, for neither the cast members onstage nor the audience seemed to want to let McKerrow go. The curtain drew shut as she drifted into the wings in the final, wistful moments of the ballet, only to open again on a retirement party that began with a few modest bouquets of flowers and crescendoed into a flurry of airborne blooms and kisses and endless applause -- and one visibly overwhelmed ballerina.

It was the kind of classy and heartfelt tribute one would expect of ABT. Stage personnel loaded McKerrow's arms with flowers. An impromptu pas de deux arose as she lay a bundle of them at the feet of her partner, Ethan Stiefel, and he returned them to her, along with some loose flowers he scooped up from the stage, which was being blanketed by blooms tossed from the audience. Then, as white rose petals rained down on the gathering from somewhere above the lighting grid, the corps dancers encircled McKerrow and one by one presented her with rosebuds.

Gillian Murphy, who had danced the supporting role of Myrta, gave McKerrow a big floppy yellow bouquet and an even bigger hug, and when she finally let go she seemed to be sobbing. Then came a parade of gorgeous, well-groomed men in sleek jeans or suits, bestowing McKerrow with bouquets and kisses. These were her partners from other performances, among them principal dancers Angel Corella, Jose Manuel Carreno and Maxim Belotserkovsky. Also paying floral homage were dancers from her early days at ABT -- long-ago standouts Terry Orr and Wes Chapman -- as well as ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, bearing an armload of lilies.

Finally McKerrow's husband, retired ABT dancer John Gardner, strode onstage with red roses, kissed his wife full on the mouth and thrust her slender arm in the air as if declaring her the new bantamweight boxing champion.

With the mound of flowers growing in front of her and still more sailing onto the stage from audience members, McKerrow could no longer discreetly wipe away her tears with a fingertip. She began to mop her face with both hands, and still the rose petals fell, and still flowers flew at her feet and still McKerrow was applauded by beaming colleagues and a grateful public. So much warmth filled the cavernous theater that even a critic or two was spotted with handkerchiefs to eyes.

Still, the display could not overshadow McKerrow's airy performance of Giselle. As marvelously centered and assured as she was feather-light, she looked like a dancer at the top of her game rather than one giving her farewell performance. McKerrow's first-act village maiden was an endearing innocent whose love for Albrecht, the dashing newcomer to whom she is engaged, has catapulted her into maturity, and her portrayal was layered in tensions. Alone, she is bubbly with happiness, yet her tenderly mimed moments with Albrecht are full of awkward shyness. Dancing with him is emotionally liberating -- this McKerrow made glowingly evident -- yet physically draining, as the ailing Giselle tries to hide the spasms of pain that will, by the end of the first act, contribute to her death when she discovers Albrecht has betrayed her with another woman.

McKerrow's greatest contribution is in living every moment of the drama -- in this as in her long roster of other roles, from classics to Balanchine to the inner agonies and strained silences of Antony Tudor's works, which became her specialty. Her characterization was as natural and authentic as her dancing was open and uncluttered. In the second act, in which Giselle's ghost joins a coven of other dead, unquiet virgins -- the vengeful Wilis of romantic-era fantasy -- McKerrow grounded her gossamer fragility in the solidity of defiance. It is Giselle's strength, the strength of a love that hasn't died, that prevents her sister spirits from taking all their man-hating anger out on poor bereaved Albrecht.

The momentousness of the evening seemed to elevate the entire cast. The corps in the second act was serene and light-footed. There was a touch of sorrow to Murphy's commanding Myrta, queen of the Wilis, as if she suffered still from whatever calamity drove her from girlhood to ghost. Sascha Radetsky's Hilarion, the huntsman who vies with Albrecht for Giselle's affections, was believably wounded as well as enraged by Giselle's preference for the impostor. Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo brought their customary brilliance to the virtuosic peasant pas de deux in the first act, yet -- to their immense credit -- it was not merely a display of showmanship. Their technical finesse was of a whole with the rest of the ballet, underscoring the quality of lightness that McKerrow established from her first step to her last.

Even Stiefel seemed to float. His classical precision was in stunning view, though he is not a terribly compelling Albrecht. Acting is not his strength. But his devotion to McKerrow was genuine and his partnering was sure-handed.

That portends well for McKerrow's professional future, which now lies with him. Stiefel has hired the ballerina and her husband to take charge of Ballet Pacifica, the company in Irvine, Calif., that he runs in between ABT performances. Will we see her dance again? She has hinted as much; perhaps the repertoire that she will help shape there will tempt her back to the stage.

McKerrow dedicated this last ABT performance to her mother, "whose love and support made the last 23 seasons possible," according to a program note. She lost her mother just two months ago. It isn't hard to imagine that the story of a spirit rising from the dead to guide and protect her loved one resonated for the dancer. "Giselle" is all about loss, and what one takes away from loss. With this performance, McKerrow gave us a good deal to hold on to, even as she slipped from our grasp.

The retiring ballerina is showered with flowers in her final bow with American Ballet Theatre.Amanda McKerrow is leaving the American Ballet Theatre to help direct Ballet Pacifica in Irvine, Calif.