DANCE / Dance of life: Judith Mackrell reviews a star-studded celebration of Rudolf Nureyev's career, at the Coliseum

What with all the gossip surrounding the absent stars (would Sylvie dance or wouldn't she?) and the totting up of all the celebrities present, it had been easy to forget the point of Sunday night's gala. But when the curtain rose on a collage of Nureyev images - multiple views of that astonishingly beautiful face - you remembered that he was the biggest star of them all. Through all the steps and speeches that followed, Rudolf Nureyev remained the monumental presence, and absence, at the centre of the evening.

The organisers had geared the show around Nureyev's career, so many of the dancers had his memory to compete with when performing certain roles. It fell to Tetsuya Kumakawa and Miyako Yoshida for instance to joust with the legend of Nureyev and Fonteyn in the Act 2 pas de deux from Le Corsaire - and they turned out the hit performance of the evening.

Yoshida's delicate calm sparked with unusual glints of effrontery as she batted through a victorious string of multiple fouettes while Kumakawa looked as if he had made some Faustian pact - not only leaping illegally, inhumanly high but complicating his jumps with an elegant cheek that had the entire theatre's jaw dropping to the floor.

Nureyev's first London appearance was in a solo by Frederick Ashton, choreographed to display his romantic foreignness (although Nureyev, in a panic, forgot most of the steps). Irek Mukhamedov performed a new version of Poeme Tragique, and, with his own brand of Russian intensity flaring from the stage, he recalled some of the glamour of Nureyev's defection. He also reminded us how many dancers followed the latter's lead - Makarova, Baryshnikov, Mukhamedov himself and, most recently, Igor Zelensky.

Once in the West, Nureyev inspired a whole generation of male dancers, not only extending their technique but enriching their range. Men no longer had to be stolid porteurs or hefty acrobats, they could be lyrical, exotic, sexy - above all sexy.

As proof, the show was crackling with male talent, from Jose Manuel Carreno's wantonly dizzy pirouettes to Rex Harrington's darkly intent partnering to Zoltan Solymosi's intemperate energy.

The women weren't outdone - Darcey Bussell was sumptuous and dangerous in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and it was in dancing like this that Nureyev, a notorious perfectionist, was most tangibly honoured.

Less so in the celebrity speeches that added up to a few too many luvvie raves (Stephen Fry excepted, who gushed into a hilarious 'Dance is my life' speech, bemoaning the low cheekbones that thwarted his career). A little wit and dissension proved a wonderful tonic.

Aids, which has killed so many dancers besides Nureyev, didn't get a mention (though Crusaid got lots of cheques) because the gala was determined to end on a high. Nureyev's inveterate love of a good show was celebrated as dancers and speakers (including the facially challenged Stephen Fry) irreverently waltzed out the evening to the music of Swan Lake.