Karen Gabay practically grew up with her ballet company, signing on straight out of high school with what was then the San Jose Cleveland Ballet 34 years ago. She was 18, already groomed from performing with a semiprofessional troupe in her hometown of San Diego. The blithe olive-eyed brunette scaled the ranks to eventually become the renamed Ballet San Jose‘s prima ballerina, the oldest principal in the company and among the most mature in a field where careers often span no more than a decade.

Now, she’s 51—still dancing, choreographing and lifting weights at the gym to keep her taut frame in fighting form. Despite the regimen, the 5-foot-2-and-a-half, 105-pound powerhouse will retire, perforce, from her company—though definitely not from ballet. Gabay’s athleticism and experience give her the rare combination of physical ability and the artistic maturity to delve deeper into the art than her more youthful counterparts. There’s no reason to end this process, she insists, even if she has reached an unconventional age for a dancer to stay in the spotlight.

“I’m not going to stop dancing, not at all,” says Gabay. “Retirement was the company’s idea; I’m just going along with it. There’s been talk of making me ballet mistress, to focus more on choreography, teaching, basically a lot of what I’ve already been doing. We’ll see. I still plan to work and dance, just not full-time anymore.”

This Sunday evening, the company will stage a tribute to commemorate the star’s third-of-a-century-long tenure, a showcase of performances near and dear to the dancer’s heart. The afternoon program features three dances choreographed by Gabay. In 2-2 Tango, 22 dancers rollick to 11 distinct tangos in a piece that explores varied types of love—romantic, jealous and never-ending—and one that Gabay originally choreographed as a tribute to her late parents. Amour de Gitan is a dance for two born from Gabay’s first collaboration with violinist Lev Polyakin for a 1998 recital called “Pointe of Departure,” the name she later gave to her still-active summer-season nonprofit dance company. Gabay will end her portion of the program with the grande pas de deux from The Nutcracker, in which she pairs up with each of the seven partners that have shared the stage with her in past performances.

That evening, the company and its patrons, many of whom grew up with Gabay as the face of San Jose ballet, will watch a video montage of the dancer’s career and hear some parting speeches.

Ballet San Jose R/Evolutionary
Friday, 8pm, Saturday, 1:30 and 8pm, Sunday, 1:30pm; $30Ð$105

Tribute to Karen Gabay
Sunday, 7pm; $40

Both at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts