New York — What does it mean? This is the only question not to crop up in William Forsythe's new theater piece, ''Square Deal'' - and the only one that may well haunt people's minds after they've seen the Joffrey Ballet perform it.
Not that the dancers, who also speak in this unusual ballet, need solve the riddle. It's just odd that they don't raise the content issue, given that ''Square Deal'' raises every other issue having to do with creation and performance.
Presented recently by the Joffrey Ballet at the City Center, ''Square Deal'' will be at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles through Dec. 11. It is in the grand old tradition of the backstage play, but is presented in new terms. If I may be so bold as to suggest its theme, this new dance is about people under the pressure of learning a new dance. It's about dancers rehearsing, coping with last-minute changes in steps and partners, coping with one another as people.
Someone is always missing, or not working hard enough, or working too hard. ''Where's Tracy?'' ''Tracy, get up!''
Tracy, who carries the brunt of the show, is the main topic of conversation among the cast. Then there's the glamorous blond star who wafts through Tracy's no-nonsense dancing in search of the party. But overriding her meanderings (both verbal and physical) are the constant commands of the choreographer and his assistants, who speak with gray-flannel voices and move with equally oily finesse. They're the masters who pull the strings, yet there's something of the con man about them. Is Forsythe, the choreographer of ''Square Deal,'' implying that choreography is the con man's art?
Well, there is a way in which Forsythe is using his considerable imagination and skill to put one over on us. ''Square Deal'' is the same old shoe done up with new laces. Its backstage, self-commenting point of view is as old as the hills, but the production is conceived in high-tech, surreal conditions.
It is a technical tour de force in lighting, slide projection, and split-second synchronization among these elements and speech, movement, and musical collage. The slick speed of these manipulations contributes to the surreal tone. So do the non-sequitur patterns of speech and dance and the ever-changing shafts of light, which transform the stage into a no man's land. We don't know if we're looking at the stage from the audience's point of view or from the wings.
''Square Deal'' is so razzle-dazzle in effect, so breathless in its surrealistic fragmentation, that it almost makes one forget content. The truth is, nothing happens. The well-organized chaos neither builds nor falls to smithereens.
It confirms that Forsythe has one of the most fertile minds in today's dance scene - and suggests that, this time, he had too many new toys to play with. I don't think Forsythe wanted to pull a fast one; it just happened that way, and in the meantime the Joffrey can put another experimental feather in its cap.
This season the Joffrey has also acquired two other feathers of more enduring , if not controversial, quality. One is Frederick Ashton's ''Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan'' - the most profound evocation of the dancer and her era ever created. The second is Paul Taylor's ''Cloven Kingdom,'' which shows the Joffrey dancers handling modern-dance technique with amazingly accurate spirit.