NEW YORK, JAN. 11 -- "He always had the desire to reach the highest planes," Patrick Bissell's boyhood friend remembered in his memorial tribute. "Sometimes, he was misguided by the search itself."

In a vaulted Gothic chapel brightened by candlelight and sprays of flowers, 150 friends, colleagues and admirers of the late dancer, once a blazing star of American Ballet Theatre, gathered for a quiet farewell today. They heard the Rev. Carl B. Nelson thank God "for the joy and exuberance {Bissell} brought to living" and commemorate "a talent that was great and was shared and brought joy to so many." Afterward, weeping dancers embraced one another and Bissell's fiance'e, ABT soloist Amy Rose.

Two days earlier, Bissell's family had gathered for a worship service in a downtown funeral chapel in Fort Smith, Ark. A Lutheran minister tried to ease their grief with verses from Isaiah and John; the chapel staff had taped musical excerpts from the ballet "Giselle."

Both gatherings had a sad air of inevitability. Bissell had just turned 30 when he was found dead in his Hoboken, N.J., apartment Dec. 29, and though the medical examiner's report is not expected for several weeks, his family and friends knew he had been abusing cocaine and alcohol for nearly half his brief life. His death, though mourned as the waste of an enormous talent, was not unexpected.

"It was a tragedy, but it was not a surprise," one ABT dancer commented last week. "He was spiraling downward, and it was hard to see. He looked terrible, in the end. He was clearly killing himself."

"I saw it coming about a year ago," agreed principal dancer Kevin McKenzie. "I remember looking at him, thinking he needed help. It registered: His days were numbered."

In the days before the memorial, ABT colleagues remembered not only Bissell's charm, openheartedness and artistry but also the countless rehearsals and performances he'd missed; the many claims of injuries when, they sometimes suspected, he was too drugged to dance; the loans he cadged from dancers, particularly those too new to know his history, and rarely repaid. He was said to have been mugged several times while on tour, despite his strapping size, presumably because of the company he sometimes kept. He once stole cash and jewelry from an ABT dancer, it was said. The company's morale suffered from his disruptive behavior.

His family had worried for years, his elder brother Donald said, that Patrick's drug use would rob him of more than his career. "You always have to be afraid when they're playing with that kind of stuff," he acknowledged. "It's like playing with a loaded gun."

Bissell's death has rekindled a debate, initiated by his one-time dance partner and lover Gelsey Kirkland with her 1986 autobiography "Dancing on My Grave," about the extent of drug abuse in the dance world. Kirkland, now living in London and appearing with the Royal Ballet, wrote that Bissell had introduced her to cocaine in 1980 at the start of their romance, that they consumed prodigious amounts of cocaine together and separately, that they rehearsed and danced under its influence.

The day after Bissell's death was announced, Kirkland's publisher issued her statement blaming his death in part on the "failure of the ballet world and the ABT in particular to acknowledge and deal openly with the drug problem" and calling on the company to develop an education and treatment program, including random testing for dancers and management.

ABT management reacted with outrage. "We don't need Gelsey Kirkland ... to tell us how we could have prevented Patrick Bissell's tragedy," Artistic Director Mikhail Baryshnikov countered in his own statement, "and completely misrepresent the company's ongoing program to provide rehabilitation for Patrick Bissell." Company spokesmen accused Kirkland of exploiting Bissell's death to promote her book, a best seller reissued in paperback in November.

Not surprisingly, the question of whether Bissell and Kirkland are isolated examples or symptomatic of a larger pattern remains in dispute. Kirkland, who is not giving interviews, wrote in 1986 that she knew of more than a dozen ABT dancers, out of about 90, with serious drug problems. Robert Pontarelli, the company's spokesman, said last week that management knew of precisely two: Kirkland and Bissell.

Dancers, managers, critics, even physicians can mount arguments on both sides of the issue. With its tremendous physical demands, its striving for perfection, its marathon performing and exhausting touring schedules, dance can be said to render its participants vulnerable to drugs -- or to make drug use ultimately impossible.

Chris Spizzo, an ABT soloist and member of the company's committee of union representatives, insisted that while members might indulge in beer or marijuana after performances, other drug use is uncommon at ABT. "We do not have a disproportionate drug problem," Spizzo said. "If there are drugs being used in the company, it's {by} no more than the normal ratio in society, probably less."

"I think it's more common {in dance} than in society in general," argued Dr. M. Lawrence Thrash, director of psychiatric clinics at New York's Bellevue Hospital, where a mental health clinic called the Performing Arts Center for Health was founded in 1982. "There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking and turning heads the other way, from what I'm hearing." But Dr. Howard Telson, his subordinate and PACH's director, said he thinks drug abuse is infrequent among dancers.

Ironically, Bissell's and Kirkland's very public struggles -- each was twice fired and rehired at ABT, though drugs were never mentioned until Kirkland published her book -- may have warned most of their peers against following their lead. Cocaine was more fashionable in the dance world of the early '80s, several sources agreed, when it was new and daring and wrongly thought to be nonaddictive. A 1983 Dance Magazine survey, in which 150 professional dancers responded to a questionnaire, found that 34 percent used cocaine "occasionally, not frequently."

"There was a time when everybody tried it," principal dancer McKenzie acknowledged. "But it's a long time gone."

Other companies, for their part, responded to press questions with innocent shrugs; spokesmen for the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey and the Feld Ballet all said they had no programs to deal with drug problems because they had no drug problems, period.

"Dance is generally very defensive about problems dancers have," observed author Suzanne Gordon, who interviewed at least 100 dancers from a dozen companies for "Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet," published in 1984. "It's billed as 'Everything is beautiful at the ballet.' "

But Bissell had been speeding toward stardom and self-destruction at about the same rate since he was a teen-ager. Years of therapy, which ABT paid for by petitioning its wealthy donors to help Bissell clean up, had failed to stop his descent. Perhaps nothing could have.

He could have been, critics and dancers agree, one of the most important dancers of his generation. Baryshnikov, in a statement after Bissell's death, praised him as "one of the brightest lights in American Ballet Theatre's history or, for that matter, in the entire ballet world."

It helped that he was 6 feet 2, strong enough to lift ballerinas with one hand, handsomely square of jaw, American by birth and training. "He was massive; he was macho," recalled Nina Zakin of Dube Zakin, the management company that represented Bissell for most of his ABT career. "Kind of the hot young heartthrob, the Dennis Quaid of ballet."

Yet he was already troubled, getting bounced from schools and beginning his long struggle with drugs well before becoming a principal dancer with ABT and the toast of the trendy town at 21. A classmate at the North Carolina School of the Arts remembered him as a user at 17.

"No supervision, a young guy, you know how it is," said his brother Donald. "He did all the experimenting other kids do. He just liked it more than most, I guess. He just got hooked on it, hooked on the life style."

Astonishingly, Bissell could keep dancing -- beautifully -- long after his addiction was common knowledge among his peers. "Because he was incredibly talented and physically so strong, he always produced," McKenzie said. "We were all amazed. You'd see that he was on something, yet he'd get out there and do phenomenal performances. It got to be almost a joke." McKenzie was among those ABT colleagues who tried to talk Bissell into getting help; "he'd swear up and down that he was clean."

But even Bissell could not stave off his deterioration indefinitely. By 1984, ABT spokesman Pontarelli said, the company had consulted with agencies that provide rehabilitation for sports and entertainment organizations. ABT devised what he called "a comprehensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation program" with one participant, Patrick Bissell.

"He'd been to AA," said Pontarelli. "He'd been to a number of psychiatrists who specialize in drug problems. He had, for the past two years, random and regular urinalysis ... We were aware of the problem."

Was ABT's the right response? Some have charged that it came years too late, that Bissell seemed to know when he would be tested, that the payment of fines for flunked urine tests did not dissuade him. "He should have been fired a dozen times over," one dancer said. Other ABT dancers noted that Bissell had been fired -- twice -- and that rehabilitation seemed likely to be more helpful than rejection.

"What else can you do besides handcuff him and put him in a closet?" sympathized principal dancer and choreographer Clark Tippet. "The company did everything it was informed enough to do. Mostly, they had their arms up in the air -- 'What are we supposed to do?' All these efforts, and there he goes again."

Last fall's stay at the Betty Ford Clinic in California, again paid for by ABT's wealthy donors, seemed to all parties a hopeful step, Bissell's acknowledgment at last that he needed more intensive therapy. His family was overjoyed. "He was making a real stab at it," said his brother.

One longtime associate, who met the dancer for lunch just before he was to enter the clinic, described him as "very positive ... He said he wanted to clean up his life once and for all. He was turning 30, and that was a crossroads. I was looking at a man who was determined."

With Bissell's release after five weeks, ABT's management was told that he'd made "significant progress, tremendous progress," Pontarelli reported. "We were elated." Though a foot injury supposedly prevented Bissell from traveling to Los Angeles with the company, ABT says it expected him to join the rehearsals that began last week and the company's national tour.

Instead, Rose returned from Los Angeles to find Bissell dead on the sofa of his new apartment. Police found no wounds, no drug paraphernalia. His family and the police suspect an accidental overdose. His body was cremated; ABT plans a more elaborate public memorial in the spring when it returns from its tour.

His loss left some members of the ballet community feeling unfairly tarred. "Patrick was unique in every way," Clark Tippet said. "There are no more drug addicts like him. Unfortunately, there are no more dancers like him, either."

Others wondered whether ballet companies should have drug programs, whether sending substitutes out on stage for Bissell time after time was humane or ultimately hurtful, whether some other approach might have helped him save himself. "All these questions you're asking me," says Kevin McKenzie, "I've been asking myself."