Cortesina, Helena


Valencia, 1903 – Buenos Aires, 1984


Helena Cortesina was an actress and dancer of Spanish cinema and theatre, and was one of the first cinema producers in Spain with her film Flor de España o la leyenda de un torero (Flower of Spain, or the Legend of a Bullfighter) (1923).

Cortesina, Helena


Helena Cortesina was an actress and dancer of Spanish cinema and theatre, and was one of the first cinema producers in Spain with her film Flor de España o la leyenda de un torero (Flower of Spain, or the Legend of a Bullfighter) (1923).

Helena Cortés Altabás, better known by the pseudonym Helena Cortesina, was born in Valencia in 1903. Her father Hernán Manuel Cortés hailed from the Valencian bourgeoisie, but abandoned the world of law and politics in order to dedicate himself to dramatic writing, achieving success as a writer of sainetes. Through the theatre Hernán met the singer Manolitas García Altabás Alios, with whom he had four children: Helena, Hernán. Ofelia and Angélica. Manolita left her husband and moved to Argentina accompanied only by her son in 1911. The daughters were sent to a religious school in Valencia. Once they had left, they dedicated themselves to cafe-theatre and lyrical dance, forming an artistic trio named Las Hermanas Cortesinas (The Cortesina Sisters). After they separated, they would each continue with careers in showbusiness: working as dancers, actresses of stage and film, and as circus artists. However, neither of her sisters would achieve the same degree of fame as Helena Cortesina.

In 1916, we have evidence of Helena’s participation in the music-hall of the Teatro Novedades in Barcelona. Her beginnings as an actress date from 1921 with Don Juan de España: a production during which she would meet the scenographer Manuel Fontanals, who would be her partner until 1936. Helena did not delay in achieving fame as an actress, nor in making the leap to film, enjoying resounding success for her portrayal of Elvira Montes in La Inaccesible (José Buchs, 1921). Her fame and the relative boom in Spanish cinema during the Great War enabled her to fund her own production company, Cortesina Films, which she did in order to propel the careers of her sisters as much as her own. From this platform, she herself directed Flor de España o la leyenda de un torero (Flower of Spain, or the Legend of a Bullfighter) (1923), with a script by José María Granada and musical accompaniment composed by María Bretón especially for performance during projection. It was a melodrama about the rise to fame of a bullfighter, played by Jesus Tordesillas, and his love for the dancer Flor de España, played by Helena Cortesina. Though her first and only film as director ended in disaster, Helena had no qualms about returning to the much more prestigious world of theatre. 

Helena Cortesina always remained within the intellectual circles of the era, and was actively committed to democracy, progress and education. So, in 1932 she was part of the La Barraca project of Federico García Lorca and Eduardo Ugarte, and from 1936 she was a member of the Intellectual Antifascist Alliance. In that moment, Helena Cortesina was hired by the theatre company of Lola Membrines, which travelled between España and Argentina. This led to her first trip to Buenos Aires, where she performed in María Teresa de Jesús by Eduardo Margiquina, Los Fracasados (The Failures) by Lenormand, Santa Rusia (Sacred Russia) by Benavente, and Bodas de Sangre (Weddings of Blood), whose overwhelming success led to Federico Garcia Lorca’s travelling to Argentina. He arrived in Montevideo in 1933, accompanied by Manual Fontanals, the partner of Helena Cortesina. During this five-month tour, the scenographer and the actress worked together on plays such as La Zapatera Prodigiosa (The Prodigious Shoemaker), Bodas de Sangre, and Mariana Pineda: all works of Lorca.     

On their return to Madrid, they tried to establish their own theatre company, but the failure of the project, combined with the death of their daughter, who had become sick during the tour, led to the couple separating in 1936. That year she collaborated with the theatre company of María Teresa León and Rafael Alberti,  Nueva Escena, but the Civil War brought about her self-exile to Buenos Aires with her sister Ofelia in 1937. It was, however, an exile committed to republican values, in the company of Spanish intellectuals. On her arrival in Argentia, she joined Margarita Xirgu in the filming of Bodas de Sangre (Domingo Guiborg, 1938) and shortly thereafter, founded with Pedro López Lagar a company through which to debut plays sympathetic to the Second Spanish Republic, such as Llegaron parientes de España (Relatives Arrived in Spain).

When the rebels won the Spanish Civil War, both sisters decided to remain in Buenos Aires. Helena continued working in the world of theatre, establishing a new drama company with fellow Valencian exile Gori Muñoz. During the following decades, Helena Cortesina continued in her career as a film actress, working on such titles as La dama duende (The Phantom Lady) (Luis Saslavsky, 1945), Los tres mosqueteros (The Three Musketeers) (Julio Saraceni, 1945), María Rosa (Luis Moglia Barth, 1946), A sangre fría (In Cold Blood) (Daniel Tinayre, 1947), La niña de fuego (The Fire Girl) (Carlos Torres Ríos, 1952), Intriga en el escenario (Plot on the Stage) (Feliciano Catalán, 1953) and El ojo de la cerradura (The Eavesdropper) (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1962). Helena Cortés passed away on 7th March 1984 in Buenos Aires, where she was buried with honours. The press paid tribute on her passing.

MAE, Luis Pérez Ochando, 2020




CLIMENT VIGUER, S. «Rescatando desconocidas: Helena Cortés Altabás, una pionera del cine». En ALBA PAGÁN, E. y PÉREZ OCHANDO, L. (eds.). Me veo, luego existo. Mujeres que representan, mujeres representadas. Madrid: CSIC, 2015, p. 701-717.

CORDERO-HOYO, E. «Helena Cortesina.» En GAINES, J.; VATSAL, R. y DALL’ASTA, M. (eds.) Women Film Pioneers Project. New York: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <>

MATEO HIDALGO, J. «Flor de España o la vida de un torero. Una partitura para el cine mudo español». Síneris, Revista de Musicología, n.º 25, verano 2015. <>


PERALTA GILABERT, R. Manuel Fontanals, escenógrafo: teatro, cine y exilio. Madrid: Fundamentos, 2007.

ZECCHI, B. «Dos pioneras entre el teatro y el cine: Elena Jordi y Helena Cortesina». En CAMAERO, E.; MARCOS RAMOS, M. (eds.). De los orígenes a la revolución tecnológica del siglo XXI. Salamanca: Hegar-Anatema, 2013, p. 377-388.