Kaidi Wu has the extraordinary ability to bring audiences to tears and to rapturous joy in equal measure.

A principal dancer for Shen Yun Performing Arts, Wu tours around the world as part of the company’s productions. Founded in New York in 2006, the performing arts company seeks to revive traditional Chinese culture through music and dance. Through the remarkably expressive form of classical Chinese dance, the performances depict snapshots of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, including stories about present-day China.

During the 2017 season, in a piece titled “A Child’s Choice,” Wu played a young girl who loses her mother to the Chinese regime’s persecution of the spiritual faith Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong. Her mother, an adherent of the ancient meditation practice, is arrested by police and tortured to death—events based on a real-life campaign begun in 1999 by the Chinese regime that has resulted in millions suffering harassment, arrest, torture, and death.

Wu says that while dancing in the piece, she forgets herself in the moment and places herself in the young girl’s shoes. “You have to use your whole body and mind to think about every little detail, how to allow the audience to understand the feeling,” she said.

In her facial expressions and in the way she moves across the stage, Wu expresses the young girl’s pain with affecting sorrow. In a moment of resolute faith that good will prevail over evil, she unfurls a banner, showing the Chinese characters representing truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, the core principles of Falun Dafa. Wu lets tears fall from her eyes—and the audience does, too.

Kaidi Wu performing classical Chinese dance techniques during an international dance competition hosted by New Tang Dynasty Television. (Courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts)

In performances depicting the folk dances of China’s various ethnic groups, Wu exudes their cheerful spirit, infecting the audience with a feeling of jubilation. The choreography requires intricate coordination with her fellow dancers, but Wu enjoys the festive dancing so much, “it’s easy to put my heart into it,” she said.

The ancient art form of Chinese classical dance dates back to the imperial court and has developed over thousands of years through Chinese theater and opera. Wu, 22, began learning the form at a young age. After watching a Shen Yun performance in Canada as a young girl, she felt the desire to become a performer, and in 2008, she passed the auditions to dance in practicum with Shen Yun.

Portraying ladies of China’s past required learning to carry herself according to traditional ideals of femininity, “showing humility, purity, gentleness—very different from modern-day traits of a woman,” she said.

Kaidi Wu as Chang’E, the legendary lady of the moon, during an international dance competition hosted by New Tang Dynasty Television. (Courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts)

In 2012, Wu was promoted to principal, which meant developing a deeper level of performance that was more than just moving gracefully in sync with her fellow dancers.

In the 2017 piece “The Enchanted Painting,” based on an ancient fairy tale, Wu plays a young woman whose life is saved by a Taoist wizard when he magically transports her into a painting, allowing her to escape danger. Wu explained that she had to portray a kind of beauty that transcended the human realm, since the woman is transformed into a divine being.

Because the Taoist saved the woman’s life, Wu also had to express “something higher than basic emotion,” a kind of deep gratitude that manifests when given another chance at life.

Through years of arduous training, Wu feels she has grasped how to truly connect with the audience. “[With] your aura, eyes, and hand gestures, you have to capture the audience’s attention, attract them,” Wu said. “Your inner and outer being have to be together.”

She is most grateful for those moments when she feels like she is talking directly to the audience with her dance. She believes the performance will help the audience understand important things in life from a different perspective.

According to the company’s website, Shen Yun is driven by the idea that art is inspired by the divine and meant to uplift. Wu hopes the audience comes away with that message. “We’re doing something that’s bigger, for everyone in the world,” she said.