Patrick Bissell, Star of Ballet Theatre, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Patrick Bissell, who brought a machismo promise to ballet that his personal demons never permitted to fully flower, was found dead early Tuesday in his Hoboken, N.J., apartment. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound star of the American Ballet Theatre was 30.

Robert Pontarelli, a spokesman for the ballet company, said Bissell’s fiance, dancer Amy Rose, had returned home from a Los Angeles tour and found Bissell’s body.

“The state medical examiner’s office said they would run tests to establish the cause of death,” Pontarelli said.

A spokesman for the Hoboken Police Department said the cause of death wouldn’t be known pending an autopsy and toxicological tests. There was no drug paraphernalia at the scene, he said in response to a question.


Throughout his brief and troubled career, Bissell attracted adoration for the excitement he generated on stage and public criticism and professional scoldings for his antics off of it.

He was reported to be in and out of treatment centers and hospitals, and his troubles surfaced nationally in December, 1980, when the American Ballet Theatre dismissed him and ballerina Gelsey Kirkland for “their gross breach of contract,” including their failure to appear for a dress rehearsal with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 9.

The suspension was lifted in April. A month earlier he had been arrested in New York City for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and pushing a policeman.

Then in 1986 Kirkland published her memoirs, “Dancing on My Grave,” in which she told of sharing with Bissell the misery and complex addiction of cocaine.


Kirkland, who had been starving herself to keep her weight down, fighting personal insecurities she said were brought on by her mentor George Balanchine, “who encouraged his dancers not to think,” and medical problems as a result of all this, moved into the world of cocaine dependency. And Bissell, she said, was her guide.

“I was his drug partner,” she wrote. “The drug provided all the answers. . . .”

Born in Corpus Christi, Tex., Bissell studied in Illinois and North Carolina before joining the New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet. He danced briefly with the Boston Ballet before making his debut with American Ballet Theatre in 1977, “carrying a spear or something,” he recalled in an interview with The Times.

Had Leading Roles


He earned leading roles in “Don Quixote,” “La Bayadere” and “Theme and Variations,” roles that had been performed by American’s director, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

He was paired with Kirkland in “The Tiller in the Fields” and quickly became known for his virile stage presence and the strength that enabled him to lift ballerinas with a single hand. He was seen nationally opposite Kirkland, Cynthia Gregory and Martine van Hamel.

The instant fame and accompanying pressure took its toll, he said in a 1982 interview, and he began “drinking very heavily and doing other terrible things that I don’t want to talk about. . . .” He also was making public statements critical of Baryshnikov’s management of American Ballet Theatre. Again, his contract was not renewed, but after a few months the firing was rescinded.

Performances Praised


His performances were praised by dance critics on both coasts, Clive Barnes in the New York Post and Martin Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times.

On Tuesday, Bernheimer said: (Bissell) “could have been one of the great danseurs of our time. Handsome, muscular, naturally forceful and slightly brash, he exuded a macho appeal that virtually assured his place in the balletic world of matinee-idolatry.

“His technique, though not always impeccable, enabled him to capitalize on the bravura feats audiences instantly love. Nevertheless, he was also capable of finesse, elegance and a certain self-mocking charm. His unusual height made him an appropriate partner for the statuesque senior ballerinas at American Ballet Theatre, Cynthia Gregory and Martine van Hamel.

“The quality of his performances was erratic, probably because of other factors in his life. At his best, however, he was very exciting and--still--very promising. His early death leaves a tremendous void.”


Slowed by Foot Injury

Bissell had worked his way back into American Ballet Theatre’s good graces at his death, and spokesman Pontarelli said only a foot injury kept him from making the Los Angeles-area “Nutcracker” tour.

He was seen here in 1986 as Albrecht in “Giselle,” and Times critic Lewis Segal praised him for his “extraordinary partnering powers.”

After learning of Bissell’s death, Baryshnikov said he had talked to him just before Christmas “and he looked forward to performing with the company during the upcoming (January) tour.”


“Patrick Bissell was without doubt one of the brightest lights in ABT history or for that matter in the entire ballet world. Beside his brilliant technique, Patrick also possessed an artistry that touched us all.”

Bissell is survived by his parents, a brother and two sisters.