|Born||Walter Patrick Bissell
December 1, 1957
Corpus Christi, Texas, United States of America
|Died||December 29, 1987
Hoboken, New Jersey, United States of America
|Height||6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)|
|Spouse(s)||Jolinda Menendez (m. 1982–83)|
|Parent(s)||Donald and Patricia Bissell|
Walter Patrick Bissell (December 1, 1957 – December 29, 1987) was an American danseur. He was a leading principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. On his death at age 30 from a drug overdose, he was described by the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Mikhail Baryshnikov as "without a doubt one of the brightest lights in American Ballet Theater's history, or, for that matter, in the entire ballet world". Bissell was noted for his height and athleticism. His most famous rôle was as Solor in La Bayadère. His death prompted investigations into the alleged widespread drug use within the American Ballet Theatre.
Bissell was born on December 1, 1957 in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was one of the five children of Donald and Patricia Bissell; his siblings included his twin brother William, two sisters Susan and Barbara, and brother Donald. The family lived in Palos Park, Illinois for several years. His father was a computer-systems designer with Hiram Walker Inc. Bissell was an athlete who enjoyed performing feats of daring: at the age of 8 he jumped off a 30-foot (9.1 m)-high diving board, even though he did not know how to swim. He dabbled in many sports— baseball, basketball, football, track, etc. He was introduced to ballet at age ten by his sister Susan who paid him to be her ballet partner; thus he was first paid to dance. He found a home and sanctuary in the passion of ballet and decided to make it his life pursuit. He began training in ballet and jazz dance and was soon accepted into a company in Toledo, Ohio. Like many boys who take up ballet, he tried to keep his lessons a secret, but word got out and he was ridiculed and bullied every single day for the rest of his school days. "I was a skinny kid. They could have crushed me in an instant," he stated.
While Bissell showed early promise as a dancer, he also showed signs of being a troubled young man and began taking drugs at the age of 14. He was expelled from his first school for dealing drugs on the premises. He was noticed by the American ballet dancer Edward Villella, who encouraged his parents to send him to a performing arts boarding school. In 1972 he joined the National Academy of Dance in Champaign, Illinois from which he was dismissed for behavior problems. Bissell then spent a year at the North Carolina School of the Arts which he left when he was informed that he should pay more attention to his academic studies. He hitch-hiked all the way to New York to pursue a lifelong career in dance— as that's where the company's top schools are. He then won a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet, where he was encouraged by Lincoln Kirstein, its founder, and Stanley Williams, one of his teachers. He was invented to join Balanchine's New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. He decided to join ABT and became a member of the corps. Though he quickly rose through the ranks. Wherever Bissell went, he attracted attention, both from his fiery dancing and his habit of wearing a cowboy hat and boots around New York City—his way of distinguishing he was a true-blue native Texan. He also made his way around the city on a motorcycle.
He danced the lead rôles in three of the four ballets performed by the school in its annual workshop and graduated in 1977. He became a good friend of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who praised his dancing.
Bissell joined the corps de ballet of the American Ballet Theatre in 1977 and, after three months there, he danced the lead male rôle in La Bayadère. He moved to the Boston Ballet but returned the following year. In 1978 he was promoted to soloist and to principal dancer in 1979 at the American Ballet Theatre due to the shortage of men in the company—even making the cover of Dance magazine. The ballerinas nicknamed him "Tarzan," as he was a huge, hulking juggernaut of a man who could carry some of the biggest and tallest girls in the company. For much of his career, however, Bissell was plagued with injuries, and there were reports of drug and alcohol problems. Bissell and Gelsey Kirkland were dismissed from the American Ballet Theatre in 1980 and 1981 on the grounds of chronic lateness and missed rehearsals—in particular for failing to attend a dress rehearsal on the eve of the company's opening at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on December 9, 1980. Bissell and Kirkland then appeared as guest artists with the Eglevsky Ballet in its production of Act II of Giselle in 1982 at the Hofstra Playhouse in Hempstead, Long Island, New York. Subsequently Bissell rejoined the American Ballet Theatre.
He appeared in many lead rôles, including Don Jose in Roland Petit's Carmen, Franz in Coppélia, Basil and Espada in Don Quixote, Albrecht in Giselle, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, James in La Sylphide, Prince Desire in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Sleeping Beauty and lead rôles in George Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphonie Concertante and Theme and Variations. He created the rôle of the Prince in Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of Cinderella, the leading male rôle in Antony Tudor's The Tiller in the Fields (1978), Glen Tetley's Contredances (1979), the title rôle of Peter Darrell's Chéri (1980) and the lead rôle in Lynne Taylor-Corbett's Estuary (1983). In 1984, Bissell starred as a guest artist with the Universal Ballet Company in its first production, Adrienne Dellas's Cinderella. He was partnered by its leading ballerina and general director, Julia Moon. He also performed as a guest artist with the National Ballet of Canada, Scottish Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. This is a stark contrast to Patrick's brother William, who trained to be a minister, but then went on to work in manufacturing.
Drug use and death
Bissell was arrested in 1981 in Bloomington, Indiana, and charged with public intoxication, disorderly conduct and pushing a policeman. He was given a 30-day jail sentence, however a plea bargain was made whereby the judge ordered him to arrange to give a performance at Indiana University with the proceeds to be given to charity. Bissell was also given a $100 fine. After being fired by the ABT (along with Gelsey Kirkland), they were re-hired and celebrated by doing a stash of cocaine they had smuggled in the lining of a ballet slipper.
Bissell married Jolinda Menendez, a former American Ballet Theatre ballerina (she danced two rôles in the Baryshnikov Nutcracker) and principal ballerina with the Pennsylvania Ballet, on June 26, 1982 at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. However the marriage ended after a year due to Bissell's many philanderings and erratic behavior. In 1984, company officials from the American Ballet Theatre consulted with experts on drug addiction and found a therapist for him. The following year, a condition of his continued employment by the company was that he undergo regular urine tests. The tests were held weekly with results 95 percent negative, however lapses were penalized with fines. In 1987, he spent five weeks at the Betty Ford Clinic in California for intensive therapy, completing the treatment in August. Prior to entering the clinic he had injured his foot and was thus prevented from going on the American Ballet Theatre's fall tour. His family blamed his drug use on the "highly competitive dance world in New York City".
Around the holidays, he was so broke he had to borrow money for groceries. Bissell was found dead in his apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey on December 29, 1987. At the time of his death, he was engaged to fellow dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, soloist Amy Rose, and had planned to rejoin the company in January of the following year. The results of an autopsy showed that he died from an overdose of cocaine, codeine, methadone and other drugs. It never was determined whether Bissell's death was a deliberate suicide. His death prompted charges of extensive drug use in the dance world by Bissell's parents and fellow-dancer Gelsey Kirkland. Kirkland's autobiography Dancing on My Grave mentions Bissell's frequent use of cocaine and, when discussing her own addiction, she alleged that he had introduced her to the drug. Attention was also drawn to the drug therapy program offered by the American Ballet Theatre. According to the company's executive director, Charles Dillingham, Bissell had been participating in the therapy program instituted by the company and had "appeared to have been making progress" prior to his death. Gelsey Kirkland alleged that Bissell's death was "an unavoidable tragedy caused at least in part by the failure of the ballet world and American Ballet Theater in particular to acknowledge and deal openly with the drug problem", which contrasted with Dillingham's statement that "his death came as an utterly horrible surprise". The 1988 production of La Bayadère by the American Ballet Theatre was dedicated to Bissell who had been notable in the rôle of Solor.
- "Cause of Bissell's Death Ruled a Drug Overdose". New York Times. 18 February 1988. Retrieved 2008-06-13.
- Dunning, Jennifer (30 December 1987). "Patrick Bissell, Dancer, Is Dead; A Principal With Ballet Theater". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-13.
- "Jolinda Menendez Becomes a Bride". New York Times. 27 June 1982. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Dunning, Jennifer (11 January 1988). "For Bissell, All Was Too Much". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- "Miss Kirkland and Bissell May Rejoin Ballet Theater". New York Times. 6 April 1981. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Kisselgoff, Anna (27 September 1982). "Ballet: Eglevsky Opener honors the Romantics". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- "Patrick Bissell". Oxford University Press. 2004. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- Earl, David. "David Earl as composer". www.davidearl-pianist.net. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Kisselgoff, Anna (18 May 1983). "Ballet: A New Work by Miss Taylor-Corbett". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Dunning, Jennifer (14 April 1998). "A Korean Dance Troupe With a Russian Look". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Krebs, Albin; Thomas, Robert (8 June 1981). "Notes On People; Ballet Dancer to Trade Talent for Jail Sentence". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Anderson, Jack (1 January 1988). "Dance World In Dispute On Drug Use". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Dunning, Jennifer (20 May 1988). "Review/Dance; Season's First 'Bayadere'". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-18.