Just in case you were wondering ...

Northern Ballet's new production of The Great Gatsby was not a mischievously calculated bid to pip Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming film to the post, even if that kind of opportunistic impulse would probably have appealed to the Gatsby character depicted in the pages of F Scott Fitzgerald's 1920's American novel.

Northern Ballet's artistic director David Nixon fills in some of the background: "We had a really successful fundraising campaign," he says, "and suddenly there was this push to do new work again. I hadn't really been preparing in terms of titles to do, because we'd been so focused on doing revivals after creating Cleopatra in 2011."

They were really going to have to hit the ground running. Two possibilities that had been simmering on the back burner for some time did come to mind.

"One thought was Chaplin," continues Nixon. "The other was The Great Gatsby. I realised it would take too long to create the scenario for Chaplin. And Gatsby has seven main characters and, overall, a big cast whereas Chaplin really would have been more about that one major male role. It had to be Gatsby. I felt good about that, remembering how much I'd loved the book at school, how I'd gone to see the film as a teenager. Then I re-read the book and my first reaction was, 'What the hell am I doing here?' because it is so complex, so full of challenges for a choreographer. But sometimes it's better not to be too intellectual in these matters, because you can scare yourself out of doing something by seeing only the difficulties."

And there are a tremendous number of juicy positives in The Great Gatsby that instinct told him would appeal to Northern Ballet audiences and already appealed to him. He jokes that (almost) top of that list "were the frocks. And the hats and the headbands. All those roaring 20s costumes that people instantly recognise from a particular era that still seems madly exciting to us, almost a century later".

In his parallel role as costume designer, Nixon fixed on a palette of colours that would chime with the mood of the times, and of individual characters. "For Daisy, it's all very light and girlish – it's how Jay Gatsby always thinks of her, ever since he saw her that first time and fell in love with her. She's always been a dream he holds on to, regardless."

He will laughingly admit some frocks proved to be a nightmare. "That drop-waist look doesn't really work well when you're asking dancers to move in certain ways. It bunches up, and you have these slim girls looking like pink garbage bags. It means finding different materials, adjusting the cut, so you can suggest that whole period without losing sight of the body lines in the choreography." There's a pause. "Actually, I came to the conclusion that as soon as you put a headband on someone, everyone would go, 'Oh, it's the 20s.' It was tempting ..." He laughs, because even though time was shorter than he might have liked on this project, it is a hallmark of his work – and the mindset of the whole company – that the details are as important as the broader creative sweep. You get it right, and you stick at it till you do.

While wardrobe was channelling Nixon's inner Chanel, the man himself was in the studio choreographing what he describes as "the scenes we never see and the conversations we never get to hear because, in the book, there's a narrator – Nick Carraway – and he's not always in the room. And if he's not there, we don't know – we can't know – anything.

"I think that was the most obvious problem we encountered when we first started talking about how to stage this. Early on we just decided: Nick can't narrate this. He can reflect the energy of Gatsby, but he can't tell that story for Gatsby. That gave me a much greater freedom to structure the work, because I did want to know what happened between Tom's mistress, Myrtle, and her husband on the day he tells her he knows she's unfaithful. I want to go into that room, see him confront her. So yes, I've taken liberties.

"It's not possible to put the exact book on-stage anyway, so maybe what we're doing is telling the behind-the-scenes story of The Great Gatsby.

"Fitzgerald wrote about men who are in relationships with certain women, but in love and involved with other women who are technically attached but still fall in love with other men. For me, it's their conversations I most enjoy choreographing. The party scenes are great fun. I always end up wanting to be at those parties. But it's the way you can reveal personalities, the unspoken dynamics within a relationship, uncover tensions and attraction between people that I really enjoy exploring."

Given that all this is unravelling against the backdrop of New York 1922, there was another challenge: what music to use. Nixon was adamant it wasn't going to be endless Scott Joplin rags, but there was no time to commission a new score. Someone suggested the composer Richard Rodney Bennett's back catalogue. "I started listening," says Nixon. "And realised I knew his stuff – the movie music especially – without knowing who composed it. It was like a gift."

Bennett's death, on December 24, 2012, now lends added poignancy to the song – I Never Went Away, with him singing – that ends the ballet.

"It's almost uncanny," muses Nixon. "The words are, I think, what Gatsby feels about Daisy. He never went away from that moment of first love, whereas she did. She moved on. Married Tom. And Gatsby never really got that. But then, he never really got that she wasn't the woman he thought she was. That's what is abidingly sad for me. He held onto a dream until he died, a dream he had created instead of seeing what was real. You have to dream. But if you can't make your dreams a reality, you have to let go and move on."

The Great Gatsby is at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre from Thursday to Saturday.