For most of us, shopping this Christmas will be the only time we hear the twinkling celesta from the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. But for lovers of ballet, Tchaikovsky’s enchanting music is just one aspect of The Nutcrackerthat is celebrated on an annual basis.

The Nutcrackerhas become a perennial favourite with ballet audiences; a tradition respected and honoured year after year. But how did a ballet from the 19th century, initially a critical flop, become so universally popular?

Queensland Ballet, The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky, Ballet Teri Crilly and Alexander Idaszak, Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo © David Kelly

The story of Clara and her magical adventures can be traced back to the 1816 German text Nussknacker und Mausekönigby E. T. A. Hoffmann, which borrowed heavily from Bohemian and Polish folklore. However, it was Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of the story that choreographer Marius Petipa used when commissioned to turn the tale into a ballet. With an original score by Tchaikovsky, the work premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg the week before Christmas 1892.

The ballet received scathing reviews. Critics took...