Back in the day, the majority of dancers, even principals, got an announcement of when their last performance would be, and, principals got a career history and wrap-up article in the NYT before the final performance. They were presented with flowers, and there could be hugs from company members, staff, former dancers, etc. Reviews were regular performance reviews with a mention of the retirement and perhaps a line or two in tribute. While there might have been private company events and celebrations to mark the milestone, the public recognition was in the context of a regular season performance, or in the case of Stephanie Saland, who retired with the 1993 Balanchine Celebration, a special solo bow in front of the curtain, a privilege also given to retiring corps members and soloists after regular season performances. Fans of the dancers would show up for those performances.
The tribute performances were for historically important dancers like Farrell and McBride, where programs would be tailored to them, although not all historically important dancers got them.
If that tradition had held, we wouldn't need to have this conversation.
Helene makes an excellent observation.
Martin's does love to give his dancers high profile, rah rah send-offs. Whether it comes from a genuine respect and admiration for his dancers or from a desire to sell more tickets is unknown. I personally believe it's a little of both.
I do think it's nice to give these retiring dancers their gala, but it does diminish the overall impact of them if to use Arlene Croce's term "utility dancers" get the same treatment as icons such as Farrell and McBride.