Mr. Cunningham ranks among the foremost figures of artistic modernism and among the few who have transformed the nature and status of dance theater, visionaries like Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham and George Balanchine.
In his works, independence was central: dancers were often alone even in duets or ensembles, and music and design would act as environments, sometimes hostile ones. His movement — startling in its mixture of staccato and legato elements, and unusually intense in its use of torso, legs and feet — abounded in non sequiturs.
In his final years, while still known as avant-garde, he was almost routinely hailed as the world’s greatest living choreographer. Mr. Cunningham had also been a nonpareil dancer. The British ballet teacher Richard Glasstone maintains that the three greatest dancers he ever saw were Fred Astaire, Margot Fonteyn and Mr. Cunningham. He was American modern dance’s equivalent of Nijinsky: the long neck, the animal intensity, the amazing leap. In old age, when he could no longer jump, and when his feet were gnarled with arthritis, he remained a rivetingly dramatic performer, capable of many moods.
Cunningham's declining physical condition did not put out his creative fire:
Even when it became known that he was fading, and friends began coming to bid farewell to him in recent days, he told one colleague that he was still creating dances in his head.
A Merce Cunningham Dance Company promotional video for a 2007 performance series in Chicago contains clips of Cunningham's avant-garde works: