CHOREOGRAPHER Merce Cunningham is one of this century's true radicals. Like Picasso, Balanchine, Stravinsky and the handful of other artists who have transformed our cultural landscape, Cunningham has taught us how to look, hear and respond in new and challenging ways -- ways that we now take for granted.

It was more than 30 years ago that Cunningham and composer John Cage set forth their revolutionary manifesto: Movement need not be about anything but itself. Music, dancing and decor can exist independently of one another. Dancing should be performed not only in traditional stage space, but also in gymnasiums, parks, and other arenas. These notions now constitute the backbone of much contemporary dance.

And still Cunningham continues to create and grow. He has branched out into film and video, and broken new ground there as well. At the age of 65, he still dances, moving among his younger company members in the role of onlooker, guide or fool, looping his expressive arms through the air in mesmerizing patterns, freezing like some alert deer in the middle of the woods.

The entire Cunningham troupe looks marvelous these days. Glory in the complex and beautiful shapes their bodies assume, revel in their ever-shifting partnerings, and decide for yourself just what these dancers' configurations mean to you. Cunningham will never explain; he wants us to make up our own minds. And isn't that what the best art is all about?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY -- Friday and Saturday at Lisner Auditorium, 21st and G Sts. NW. Tickets $10.50 to $18. Call 393-4433 or 857-0900.