PARIS (AP) _ A frail and gaunt Rudolf Nureyev blinked back tears as the audience at the Paris Opera surrounded him with flowers and leapt to its feet for a 10-minute ovation at the premiere of his choreography of ''La Bayadere.''

His thin frame wrapped in a red cape, his head held high, the ailing 54- year-old dancer walked slowly onto the stage late Thursday, supported by lead dancers Isabelle Guerin and Laurent Hilaire.

Within seconds, the stage was covered by dozens of bouquets thrown by enthusiastic fans witnessing what might be the great Nureyev's final creative effort. Fittingly, perhaps, it was ''La Bayadere,'' the 19th century Marius Petipa classic, that helped to make the Soviet-born dancer an icon in the West when he defected after a performance in Paris in 1961.

In a private ceremony after Thursday night's production, Culture Minister Jack Lang decorated Nureyev with the insignia of the Commander of Arts and Letters, one of France's highest awards for a lifetime of excellence in the arts.

Nureyev is ''a symbol of freedom, both interior and in space, a man who brought new wings to the Opera Ballet company,'' said Lang, one of the 2,000 people who attended the gala premiere.

''In the name of our country and the Republic, I would like to express how much we love and admire you,'' Lang declared.

Nureyev was seated throughout the ceremony, apparently too weak to stand to accept the award.

Paris Opera officials confirm that Nureyev has been ill for sometime, but refuse to specify the nature of the illness. According to French news reports, he underwent heart surgery three months ago.

The popular daily Le Parisien, reflecting widespread speculation that Nureyev may be dying, headlined its review, ''Nureyev's Will'' and said the sumptuous production ''would mark dance history in more than one way.''

Also on hand for the performance was Pierre Berge, the Paris Opera chairman who fired Nureyev from his post as artistic director in 1989, saying he spent too much time away from the company. But their quarrel did not stop Berge from being among the first to jump to his feet at the end of the ballet.

In recent years, Nureyev has divided his time between Paris and New York, returning to the Opera as chief choreographer in 1991 after starring in an American road production of ''The King and I.''

Despite his declining health, Nureyev attended most of the rehearsals of ''La Bayedere,'' a work in three acts choreographed especially for the Opera ballet company.

Much of the actual legwork at rehearsal was done by Ninel Kourgapnika, a former Kirov ballerina and his first dance partner in a St. Petersburg production of the piece in the late 1950s.

Critics gave high marks to sets by Ezio Firgerio and Turkish-style silk costumes by Franca Squarciapino, the award-winning designer of the 1990 French film, ''Cyrano de Bergerac.''

It was after a performance in ''La Bayadere'' in Paris with the prestigious Soviet Kirov troupe that Nureyev defected to the West in 1961.

On June 17, while sipping coffee in the departure lounge of Le Bourget airport outside Paris, the 23-year-old newcomer broke away from his fellow dancers and ran to a policeman shouting, ''Help me 3/8''

Several Soviet guards tried to grab him, but it was too late. He was whisked away to the Interior Ministry and granted political asylum.

Two years later, Nureyev recreated ''Ombres,'' one of the acts of ''La Bayadere,'' for the London Royal Ballet, showing off his athletic prowess, grace and magnetism in tandem with longtime partner Margot Fonteyn.

Nureyev had long dreamed of creating his own Kirov-inspired, full-length version of ''La Bayadere'' for the Paris Opera.

Though he could hardly get around without help, he attended to every detail, making sure this major production, perhaps his last, would be, as he put it, ''the most ideal.''